We all aspire to raise compassionate children who are kind to those who especially need it most. Here are 8 tips on how to raise a kind child.
Imagine a fourth-grade classroom. The chatter dies down when a new student enters. He’s not like the other kids—he’s different. Clearly different.
He’ll have a hard time navigating through the social rules of school, much less make a friend. He’ll probably be the target of meanness, ridicule, and loneliness.
Some kids will be outright mean. They’ll make jokes, call him names, and spread rumors. They’ll turn others away from him.
Others will stay “neutral.” They’ll avert their eyes as he passes the hallway and stay quiet when they hear a mean joke or see him shoved. Maybe they’ll whisper to one another when they don’t think he’s looking.
Then, there are those who will be kind. They can imagine the hurt, loneliness, and fear he must feel in the new school. They won’t join in on the jokes—instead, they’ll put a stop to it. They’ll sit in the empty desk next to him because nobody else would and stick up to the bullies.
It can be hard to be that kid. She’d not only have to overcome the pressure to fit in, but her own questions, conflicts, and biases.
How to raise a kind child
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Wonder by R. J. Palacio became an instant hit because the book portrays exactly those scenarios. August, a child born with facial deformities and homeschooled all his life, will go to a traditional school and face those kids. Some were mean, many were neutral, while a few became his friends.
Kindness doesn’t only reveal itself in these circumstances, either. Being a compassionate friend, a good big sister, and an empathetic citizen of her community all point to kindness.
How can you encourage your child to be kind to others, especially when they need it the most? One who won’t just stand by in the face of cruelty but will reach out to others? One who will be a good friend? Let’s take a look how:
1. Practice empathy
Kids are born thinking only of themselves, and not until years later do they begin to imagine what other people might feel and think inside. By practicing empathy, you’re modeling for your child how to consider others besides herself.
For instance, you can relate to how she feels. “It must be hard to stop what you’re doing when you’re having so much fun.” Or “I can see why you’d be upset—I’d feel the same if it were me, too.”
Then, show her how she could practice empathy for others. If she hurts her little brother, you could say, “You wouldn’t like it if he did the same to you.” Or “It looks like he’s feeling upset and hurt right now.”
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2. Show gentleness
Part of being kind is to show a gentle side to ourselves. While there’s a time for roughhousing, competition, and wild antics, your child also needs to tap into her gentleness.
Maybe it’s cuddling a favorite stuffed animal, hugging her new baby sister, or petting the cat. These kind gestures show we don’t always have to act so rough or guarded. That we can peel off our outer layers, and that certain scenarios call for a kinder tone.
3. Don’t tolerate rudeness
Do you sometimes hear your kids talking in a mean way to one another? Does your child reply with a curt and rude response when you ask him a question?
Don’t tolerate these manners, whether he’s talking to other kids, his grandparents, or you.
Nip it in the bud. “We don’t talk rude to one another,” you can say. Or “It’s okay to disagree, but we do it respectfully.” He’ll understand we all fall under the same rules and social expectations.
Then, enforce consistent rules, regardless of circumstances. He might have had a bad day, or it may even be his birthday. But that doesn’t excuse him from bullying his little brother or being sassy with you. Acknowledge the circumstances but don’t let them excuse him from being mean.
4. Encourage helpfulness—but don’t reward it
One of the easiest ways to raise a kind child is to encourage helpfulness. Ask her to help her little sister, fill everyone’s water cups, or bring in the groceries.
But here’s the extra kick: Don’t reward her for it. At least not directly.
Genuine helpfulness should come from within. Kids should be kind because they find real joy from being so and because it’s the right thing to do. They shouldn’t be “kind” because they get attention or money, and certainly not because they’re forced to.
5. Praise your child’s character
Common parenting advice tells us not to praise character-based traits (“You’re so smart!”) and instead praise the effort (“You must have studied so hard!”).
This is true about effort-based traits like one’s smartness, athleticism, and artistry. You wouldn’t want your child to think her smartness is just who she is and nothing to do with effort. This would only make her shy away from anything difficult that might label her as “not smart.”
We also don’t want our kids to feel locked in to a certain talent. She shouldn’t assume she’s the artistic one while her brother is the athletic one.
Kindness, however, is different.
In this case, you would want her to associate kindness as part of her makeup. Saying “You’re so kind,” would bear more impact than “You did a kind thing.”
Professor and author Adam Grant says this is one of the ways to raise a kind, moral child. Praising character instead of behavior reinforces that she’s a kind person. He writes in his book, Originals:
“When our character is praised, we internalize it as part of our identities. Instead of seeing ourselves as engaging in isolated moral acts, we start to develop a more unified self-concept as a moral person.”
In other words, children are more likely to clean up toys when they’re asked to be helpers instead of to help.
6. Don’t focus so much on achievement
Winning isn’t everything. Really. When everything is about competition, your child loses sight of other noble pursuits like teamwork, effort, and challenging herself.
She’ll also forget how others feel when the focus is only on herself. She might grow up narcissistic instead of empathetic. And aiming so high at all costs makes her see others as props or competitors, not as potential collaborators or teammates.
7. Point out kindness
Whether your child’s or others’, point out acts of kindness you see. When reading books or watching movies, discuss good deeds the characters are doing. Show how their kindness made others feel.
The more aware he is of how kindness is all around us, the more he can model it for himself.
Also point out when characters aren’t being kind. One of my beefs with cartoons is when they display meanness without any resolution or when they make mean acts a comical farce.
(Like the part where Princess Ana punches Prince Hans in the face. He wasn’t a nice guy, but her action wasn’t admirable or deserve laughter.)
8. Model kindness
Parenting starts with us. The kindness we want to see in our kids must begin with ourselves. I say this so many times but it bears repeating: We need to model the values we want our kids to emulate.
Be respectful to others, from your spouse to the waiter in the restaurant. Pick up a stranger’s hat that had blown away in the wind. Bring small gifts to your relatives, and delight in the hope that it’ll bring them joy.
Be kind, in actions and in words. You don’t even need to say much—your actions teach your child more than any lecture or lesson could.
How can we raise kind, compassionate kids, especially today? Practice empathy so your child can understand how others feel. Show her how to be gentle when the time calls for it. Don’t tolerate rudeness, toward you or others.
Encourage helpfulness without expecting reward or treats in return. Praise her character as a kind person. Don’t focus so much on winning and achieving at all costs. Point out kindness when you see it around you, and model it yourself so she mimics your actions and your words.
As I read Wonder, I imagined what my kids would do if the story played out in their school. I hope I’m raising compassionate kids who will choose kindness, even—and especially—to those who need it most.
Get more tips:
- 10 Children’s Books about Being Kind
- 3 Meaningful Lessons All Moms of Boys Need to Teach
- How to Teach Gratitude to Children
- 12 Children’s Books that Reinforce Positive Behavior
- How to Stop Kids from Fighting Every Day
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