9 tips for parents to nurture kindness and empathy in their children

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

It’s been heart-warming to see so many in our communities performing small acts of kindness recently, but it’s also clear that our world is still very much divided, with expressions of hate, fear and prejudice commonplace in our societies.

Former President Barack Obama said, ‘Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.’ If we are to begin to heal divisions and move towards a more peaceful, compassionate society, it’s vital that we teach our children that kindness, compassion and empathy towards others is just as important as their own personal happiness or success. Here’s our 9 top tips for how to do so.

1. Make sure your child knows kindness is a priority.

When you talk to your little one about their behaviour, emphasise that you value them being kind just as highly as being happy or being ‘good.’ Be specific in your praise when they behave kindly towards others and highlight what pleased you – instead of saying ‘good girl/boy!’ say ‘that was really kind of you to share your snack with your friend, I bet that made them feel good.’ When your little one’s nursery practitioner or schoolteacher shares feedback, celebrate positive notes on good sharing or kindness just as much as academic or good behaviour notes. Draw attention to examples in books, TV or in the news of people doing compassionate deeds for others and use them to start conversations with your child about how important you think being kind is.

2. Model kindness towards your child and to others.

By practising empathy towards your child, you are building a strong, loving relationship which becomes the basis for nurturing their compassion for others. If your child feels secure and loved, they will have a greater capacity to feel empathy. Build this attachment through truly tuning into their needs, taking a genuine interest in them as individuals and being gentle with them – even if they ‘misbehave’ or make a mistake. The more they trust that they are loved and cared for the easier they will find it to direct kindness towards others.

Like so many things, children learn empathy and kindness by watching us demonstrate it. Be mindful of how you treat those around you, from your partner to the check-out operator in the supermarket – your child will notice and unconsciously absorb even small everyday interactions. Model the behaviours you wish your child to adopt – a smile and a warm greeting, helping a friend who needs a favour, giving up your seat on the bus – and give your child plenty of positive examples to draw from. Be consistent in what you tell your child to do and the way you yourself behave.

3. Language matters.

The language your child hears you use will play a large part in how they perceive what’s important and how they in turn speak to others. Set a family rule that language should always be respectful and kind, even when talking about somebody who isn’t present. Try to avoid using uncharitable or disrespectful words when referring to others and make sure your little ones do the same. Be consistent in your own behaviour and in enforcing this for your children.

In moments of conflict, take a mindful pause before you react and try to avoid abusive or accusatory language. Replace negative phrases like ‘bad boy/girl!’ or ‘Stop it!’ with gentler phrases like ‘That wasn’t very kind but we all make mistakes. What would you do differently next time?’

4. Own your mistakes.

Having said the above, we know that parenting is certainly not easy and there will be times when we express our frustration in the wrong way, either towards our child or in earshot of them. When this happens, make sure you pause, apologise and talk to your little one about what happened. Explain how you were feeling and why you reacted in the way you did, suggesting what you would do differently next time. Taking responsibility for mistakes will not only inspire your child to do the same but also maintain the bond of trust between you.

5. Read books and role play.

Role play is great for giving little ones the opportunity to consider things from another perspective and practice empathy, particularly if they don’t have siblings to play with. When playing with their peers children learn to negotiate, compromise and share, but when playing alone they must imagine the points of view of other participants. Help them by asking them questions about the other (imaginary) people in their game – they may be represented by dolls or stuffed animals! Ask them to consider how each one feels and how they might help them or make them feel better – in this way they start to understand how different people can have different feelings and experiences.

Reading a book gives us a magical gateway into the mind of somebody else. The more we read, the more time we spend considering other points of view and other ways of feeling. As you read to or with your child, actively engage them in conversation about how they think each character might be feeling or what they might want, helping them to practice putting themselves in the shoes of another.

6. Build acts of kindness into your routine.

Making a regular practice of kindness, such as collecting for your local food bank or volunteering at a community garden, will help your little one to understand that kindness is an important responsibility for all of us. If you can’t commit formally to a charity or project, try to build in time to do one kind thing a week together with your child – weeding the garden for an elderly neighbour, or baking for their friends at nursery. When these acts are part of your routine, your child will start to think of them as a duty rather than an ‘extra.’

7. Talk openly about emotions, both positive and negative.

Our ability to be empathetic relies on our ability to recognise and process emotion. Helping your child to become more emotionally self-aware will naturally result in their becoming more tuned in to the emotions of others. To do this, we need to be willing to allow our children to experience a range of emotions, rather than shielding them from negative feelings. If your child is sad, frustrated or angry, try to avoid ‘fixing’ the problem straight away; instead, help your little one to identify what they’re feeling and understand why by gently encouraging them to talk it through. By doing so you are validating their feeling and helping them to understand why others might feel this way too. You can also share your own feelings as part of enhancing their emotional awareness.

8. Broaden their horizons and show them other perspectives.

We love the following from the Making Caring Common Project:

‘We often talk about empathy as a quantity. For example, we speak of children as having a lot of or a little empathy or as lacking empathy entirely. Yet the issue often isn't whether children can empathize or how much empathy they have. It is who they have empathy for. For most of us, it’s not hard to have empathy for our family members and close friends. It’s also human nature to have empathy for people who are like us in some way. But the real issue is whether children (and adults) have empathy outside that circle. As parents and caretakers, it’s not only important that we model appreciation for many types of people. It’s important that we guide children in understanding and caring for many kinds of people who are different from them and who may be facing challenges very different from their own challenges.’[1]

While we will all be surrounded by different groups of people in our communities, making our children aware of the diversity of our world and the different challenges people face is crucial. Wherever you can, talk to your child about others, whether their peers at nursery, people on the news or in books or films, and what they might be experiencing in their unique situations. Don’t shy away from conversations that feel difficult, as it’s important that little ones truly understand, as far as they can, how people’s lives are affected by different challenges. Foster an attitude of inclusivity and acceptance of diversity at home – we’ve shared 7 books to start those conversations here.

9. Shift the focus away from the self.

In a society that seems to value personal wealth or beauty above all else, we think it’s vital that we help our children understand that they are not the centre of the universe! Although obviously it’s our job as parents to make our little ones feel loved and confident in themselves, we also need to find the balance. Make sure you don’t just talk to them about themselves but about the people around them – ask them questions about their friends, their teachers, their relatives. Introduce a spirit of helpfulness early on, giving your child specific jobs which they understand are expected of them and that they can take responsibility for, even if it’s small things like putting their toys away each day in their basket, or helping to pair socks when you do the laundry. When your child knows that helping others is part of their responsibility at home, they will be more likely to continue to look outwards to see how they can show kindness in their wider communities and beyond.

[1] https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/resources-for-families/5-tips-cultivating-empathy, 3.6.20

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