Developing Kindness Starts With You
Hello <<First Name>>,
A frequent question I receive from parents like you is: how can I teach my child to be kind?
We all hope for our children to be kind, to share, be empathic and care about others. And generally, children are all of these things. Although I well understand the confusion that arises when your toddler shows kindness one moment, (for example, when they offer a toy to another child or go to comfort a crying friend) and then a moment later, they show their ‘other’ side. Pushing, refusing to share or saying something unkind. This is the side of your child that may make you nervous and worry that they’re not developing into the person you hope for them to become. Never fear! Kindness won’t show through all the time. That doesn’t mean your child doesn’t embody it. Let me assure you, this flip-flopping behavior is absolutely normal at this age.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
Toddlers are still figuring out who they are, and that means focusing on their own needs a lot of the time. First, toddlers work to understand that they are their own person and as they do, they need to know that you are there for them in times of need. As they figure out what it means to be an individual while feeling safe and secure, their interest in other people begins to grow, as does their understanding of other people’s feelings and needs.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TODAY: Take the long view, as learning and showing kindness begins early but takes years to be fully set in place.
In the earliest days, your child begins learning about kindness. The roots of kindness are planted in the earliest months of your child’s life and will continue to take root and grow throughout their early years of childhood and beyond. Decades of research show that when we comfort, coo with and respond to the needs of our infants, they feel cared for and safe; this is when the roots of kindness take hold. In other words, babies and children begin learning to be kind by being treated with kindness and loving care through their early relationship with you. Your baby cries and you comfort him. He learns that people provide comfort when he is distressed. When children feel safe and taken care of, they are learning to do that for others.
Listen and Mirror Back. As your child grows, your interactions will expand and move beyond daily comfort and care (although that continues to matter, of course). Your interactions with your little one will take on new roles, especially as they become more verbal. This gives you more opportunities to help your child develop kindness. For example, children have a lot to say. Listening to what yours has to say and repeating back what you heard demonstrates your sincere interest and respect for them. “Mommy cares about what I have to say!” Your respect for your child helps him (or her) develop the kind qualities you hope for them to have.
Try This: In response to your toddler telling you a story about his day, you can reiterate what you heard and comment on it, but without being critical or judging her. “So today you made that picture and drew it at the table with your friend. That sounds like fun.” You can also show your respect for their interests by building on them. “What did you like about the elephants at the zoo? I saw how excited you were when we saw them.”
Express & Talk About Feelings. Another way in which kindness and empathy take root in your child is by talking about the feelings of other people.
Try This: If another child is crying at the playground or is upset in a store, take note. You may say, “I wonder why he (or she) is upset. Look how her father is taking care of her.” You can do the same with characters in a book, “I wonder how that little raccoon feels. He looks sad.” This open talk about emotions helps your child learn that other children and grown-ups have feelings, too, and that loved ones are there to help. Talking about your feelings and the feelings of other people also help your child learn about his own, an important aspect of being able to understand and reach out to other people.
Model Through Repair. What about those moments when you haven’t been too kind? Maybe you’ve lost your patience, become short-tempered and yelled? I see these less than ideal interactions as equally important models for teaching kindness through reconnection and repair. In fact, these disruptions and coming back together may be the most important way that children learn about kindness.
Try This: We all have hard days as parents. After being short tempered or yelling at your toddler, go back to him (but only if you are ready as your child will know if you are insincere) and say, “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I got frustrated and upset. I still love you.” This is key because when we get upset with our toddlers, they worry that we’ve disconnected from them. Or worse, abandoned them. It may sound extreme, but young children think in either/or ways. “Either you love me, or you don’t.” Coming back to them for the repaired connection is a respectful way of letting your child know that you are still there for them, even in the tough moments. They also learn that people who love them can get upset and make mistakes (i.e. grown-ups aren’t perfect!). Learning to trust that reconnection and repair will always follow an upset is a huge relief for your child! And in the process, your child has a model for how to apologize to others.
Be Kind to Others. Finally, you model kindness through your interactions with other people, including teachers, the mail carrier, and your local barista. Our children observe our every move and learn from us how to behave and react. When you say hello and thank you to the store clerk, your child notices. When you ask how a neighbor is doing, or offer to help a friend who is sick, your child is watching and taking in all of your actions. This is how kindness is modeled and absorbed.
Throughout these early years, the most important teacher, and nurturer, of kindness is you. You model it in your everyday actions and how you relate to and treat your child. Nurturing kindness to bloom is your work to do because you are your child’s most significant role model of what kindness looks, feels and sounds like.
Have insights and teaching of your own? I’d love to hear your stories. Share your comments on Facebook or Twitter. Do you have additional questions about how to teach kindness? Leave your questions on Facebook and I’ll do my best to answer them.
For more toddler insight, visit HOW TODDLERS THRIVE and feel free to share what you've read here with other parents on the playground!