Parents spend a lot of time telling their kids to be nice to others — especially when siblings are involved. But raising kids who are kind takes more than scolding meanness. Kind kids must be attuned to the emotions of others and have a genuine concern for their wellbeing. Where niceness meets empathy, kindness is a seriously challenging lesson for parents to pass on to their kids.
Luckily, it is possible to train kindness into kids. For a recent study, researchers from the Center for BrainHealth had 38 mothers lead their kids aged 3 to 5 through the online kindness training program “Kind Minds with Moozie.” The kids completed five short modules, in which a digital cow named Moozie described creative exercises that parents can do with their kids to teach kindness, such as playing a game of charades where family members take turns pretending to engage in different acts of kindness. The researchers found that the preschoolers were both more kind and empathetic after the kindness training.
“Kindness is sometimes taken for granted,” says Stephanie Barca, J.D., a social service therapist and board member of the anti-bullying nonprofit Children’s Kindness Network. “But it really is a skill that can allow any kid to make a huge contribution to those around them. That, in turn, helps them feel so good and so proud of themselves.”
Here are three things parents who raise kind kids make it a habit to do.
1. Building Emotional Intelligence
Although people tend to think about kindness as a specific character trait, it’s grounded in the multifaceted concept of emotional intelligence — a set of skills that allow people to monitor their own and others’ emotions, as well as the ability to use emotions to guide one’s own thoughts and actions. An emotionally intelligent person can accurately perceive and evaluate what others are feeling and appropriately control their own emotions as a situation dictates.
Helping kids develop an emotional vocabulary that allows them to identify feelings and emotions is foundational to helping them become kind people. And if the rise of emojis has taught us nothing else, it’s that even very young children easily understand visual representations of emotions.
It’s a strategy the Moozie curriculum utilizes to great success when teaching kids how to perceive what others are feeling. Kids are presented with situations and then asked to identify the characters’ feelings. But you don’t need Moozie to do this. When watching a children’s show with your kid, you can pause at any point to ask what a character is feeling.
“It’s a nice way to introduce these concepts because the expressions are simple and straightforward,” Barca says. “In the real world, those signs may not be as strong for someone who has difficulties interpreting those social cues.” Visual representations like emojis and fictional characters are tools for learning emotions that are easy for kids to grasp, especially when they’re bright and easy to interpret.
Cell phones conveniently provide parents with everything they need for a quick game of name-that-emoji when looking to kill a few minutes. The Feelings Book by Todd Parr and its corresponding flashcard set are more tangible tools that provide a vibrant and screen-free take on the emoji idea.
2. Celebrating Kindness As It Happens
Parents aren’t starting from scratch when teaching kids how to be kind. Anyone who has had a preschooler give them a dandelion or received a dozen slobbery kisses from a toddler is well aware that kind intentions start early, even if the execution is lacking.
Taking time to notice and affirm such moments of kindness highlights for kids the capacity they already have while creating a positive feedback loop that encourages kindness moving forward. A kid shows kindness, an adult notices this and compliments them, and then the praise triggers a positive neural response that encourages the child to repeat acts of kindness.
“Learning to get along and contribute to the greater good is crucial to a functioning society, and those are things that any child can do. Noticing and celebrating those moments allow them to feel a sense of accomplishment, which is huge in helping them make kindness a habit,” Barca says.
Obviously, parents need to discourage their kids from being unkind by imposing negative consequences when kids say hurtful things. But finding opportunities to give rewards when they build up a run of kind words or actions can be a powerful tool for positively reinforcing kind words and actions. Using a reward chart provides a visual reminder to kids and gives them an easy way to track their progress as they work to make kindness habitual.
3. Practicing Kindness Together
Barca makes learning and reinforcing kindness interactive with her kids by using a puppet to roleplay how to be kind in various situations. Instead of simply giving kids examples of how to be kind, they can participate in the creative process at their own speed. “For younger kids, the puppets are really good at role-playing positive social interactions with an engaging character,” she says. “And it sets up situations where kids can receive affirmation for the times they give good suggestions about how [the puppet] can respond to others with kindness.”
Another option for practicing kindness is to have kids brainstorm kind alternatives when they see fictional characters speak unkindly to others in books, television shows, or movies. Putting the focus on a third party in a low-stress situation can be more engaging than having kids do a real-life “do-over” after they’ve been unkind to someone and emotions are still high. Taking in an entire scenario from a third-person perspective can help remove some of the pull to justify retaliatory hurtfulness amid conflict.
For older kids, service and volunteering can be pathways to reinforcing kindness. “Even small gestures of kindness can make a big difference,” Barca says — a good reminder during these times when kindness feels like a fleeting art. Doing the next right thing — or in this case, the next kind thing — is an attainable goal that can have powerful effects.