If you are the parent of a toddler or preschooler you’ve probably experienced a scene like this:
child hears a baby crying at a store or park and asks, “why is she crying?” or perhaps even goes over and tries to comfort the baby.
You sigh happily at your empathetic child (and pat yourself on the back). Two minutes later…
The same child wacks her brother with a toy block.
You sigh frustratedly and question your parenting skills.
How can the same child that was seemingly so empathetic also be so…unkind? Or perhaps the question is: are kids wired to be kind and empathetic or is it taught?
As with most aspects of child development, the answers are not always black and white. In reality, the answer is “both.” Here’s why…
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Teaching Kids to be Kind: Nature and Nurture
Humans are social beings and this we are wired from a young age to be aware of the feelings/emotions of others. Even babies have some basic understanding of kind and unkind people (as you can see in this video).
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That being said, these young babies are also inherently self-centered. It’s just a survival technique–they want their needs met immediately. They do not yet have the brain maturity to really comprehend what another person is feeling.
They literally cannot put their mind into the mind of another person. This skill, called perspective-taking (or Theory of Mind), doesn’t typically develop until about 4 years of age.
Once this skill develops in the brain, it’s like a flip is switched and kids can see things from another person’s perspective. Using this skill consistently and in the settings we’d like them to is quite another matter.
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This is where the nurturing aspect of teaching kids kindness comes into play. Although kids have the ability to see another person’s perspective, this skill still needs to be made into a habit.
Just like most habits of mind, this too can be wired into the brain with repeated practice.
Just like reading or learning math, areas of the brain that are frequently used become stronger. When our empathy “muscles” are used often, they too become stronger and easier to use when needed.
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Some kids take to this skill quickly and easily just due to their temperament or personality. Others, however, really need a lot of repetition for empathy to become an automatic reaction.
The good news is there are hundreds of possible interactions, conversations and events over the course of our time with our kids to practice these empathy skills.
That’s right, teaching kids kindness and empathy is done primarily through our everyday interactions.
In one of my favorite books on this topic, The Yes Brain, authors Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain it this way,
“The goal is to help wire our kids’ brains in such a way that it orients them, at a deep level, to other people and their feelings. We want to engage our children’s neural circuitry in a manner that encourages them to think about and feel concern for the people around them, and to do the right thing.”
Everyday things parents can do to nurture kindness in kids:
- Talk the talk. The words we say to our kids really do become their internal dialog. Discussing with our kids how other people might be feeling really makes a difference to wire their brains to consider others’ feelings. One study showed that mothers who talked to their kids (as young as 5 years old) about how other people might be feeling, facilitated the development of Theory of Mind more so than parents who did not discuss feelings.
- Walk the walk. It seems obvious, but modeling kindness in our own lives really is the best way for kids to learn it. Kids are like little sponges when they are young and are keenly aware of those interactions we have with waitresses, drivers, teachers, etc. The more we can model the kind behavior we want to see, the more our kids will follow suit.
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Model empathy and kindness
Perhaps the more challenging way to model kindness and empathy is with our kids! Although they often know how to “push our buttons,” if we can consistently respond with empathy (most of the time at least) they will feel what empathy feels like.
- Let them feel their feelings (with support). One key aspect of positive parenting is differentiating between disciplining behavior versus disciplining (or punishing) emotions. Although it’s uncomfortable for us to hear our kids’ negative or sad feelings, it’s crucial for us to allow them to express them. We can work on “coaching” them in positive ways to express emotions, but not punishing their emotions is important.
Obviously we should also set boundaries on their behavior and encourage them not to let their emotions carry them away to a point of hitting, pushing, etc. By allowing the negative feelings to exist, instead of pushing them down or distracting them away, we allow our kids to gain valuable coping skills. Additionally, they understand what it feels like to be the recipient of empathy.
As parents, it’s empowering to know that the daily interactions we have with our children really matter.
Knowing that we can help guide our children into becoming kind, compassionate adults is some of the best motivation to continue through our parenting struggles with hope.
With our help in guiding their social-emotional development, our kids can be part of a more kind, peaceful generation ahead.
Inside THE GROWTH MINDSET KIT :
- Daily journaling pages (52 pages)
- Learn to love yourself worksheets (6 pages)
- Learn to be thankful and give back to others worksheets (3 pages)
- Inspirational Quotes (20 pages)
- Inspirational failure stories (6 pages)
- Inspirational coloring pages (10 pages)
- Dealing with anxiety activities and worksheets (9 pages)
- Goal setting and being productive worksheets (7 pages)
- Being mindful, content and discovering gratitude activities (10 pages)
- Travel bucket list and travel journal pages(4 pages)
- Family activities pages (3 pages)
- Encouraging kids to review books activities (5 pages)
- Monthly review activites (4 pages)
139 pages of fun, positive and growth mindset activities
Writer : Amy Webb from Thoughtfulparent.com