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  • Writer's pictureFiona McNally

Teaching Kindness to Children

Today, judging others seems to be an activity practiced by far too many people. Although unkindness isn't new, the ease, speed, and anonymity with which people can now pass judgments and criticism onto others is unprecedented. Much of this happens online via social media - it is all too easy to post comments about other people, whether they are celebrities or ordinary people - and as children are at the forefront of technology and social networking they are learning from what they see around them.

Children also tend not to be able to see the bigger picture. Because young children usually focus on what is right in front of them and tend to not think too far ahead, they may not realise the full effects of what behaviours like meanness, exclusion, or bullying can have on other children. Whilst children are hard-wired to have empathy for others and want to help, this develops alongside an increase in self-awareness. As five- and six-year-olds become more aware of their own emotions, they begin to recognise them in others, and their emotional vocabulary expands. With this increased language facility, the doors open to in-depth discussions about emotions that are the main avenue for developing empathy skills. These discussions can come from a classroom situation, a current event, a shared reading of a book, a photograph and even a TV program that elicits an emotional response. By taking time to discuss the emotions of a book character; for example, or the feelings of a friend after an argument, you provide children with the raw materials for developing compassionate understanding and actions.

It is never too late to teach children kindness – just like any other behaviour, it can be trained through repetition. The most dominant way children learn new behaviours is by copying those around them. Which means we adults have a powerful opportunity, and responsibility, to teach by example.

Mirror neurons are cells in the brain that wire us for imitation, and they are especially active during childhood. When children observe an action, their brains respond as if they are performing the action themselves. Their brains form new neural pathways, and these create the basis for behaviours that stick with them throughout their lives. If you want to encourage more kindness in your children, and in the world, here are some things you can do:

1. Send Kind Thoughts

Kindness can sometimes be as simple as a wish for the well-being of others. Set aside a time each day or week and ask your child to imagine someone they want to send kind thoughts to and then say out loud, ‘May they be happy. May they be healthy. May they be safe.’ This practice helps children get into the habit of thinking kind thoughts more often.

2. Share Stories of Kindness

Choose books and stories with kindness themes. There are many great stories to choose from. Stories are a powerful and highly influential way for children to learn without direct teaching. Pause as you are reading and ask how certain characters might feel. Ask questions like, ‘When the dog was left out of the game, how do you think he felt?’ and ‘How do you think the girl felt when her brother said she was boring?’ Help your child identify and label feeling words. For younger children, read stories out loud that invoke their imaginations. For older children, stock their reading list with plenty of kind role models.

3. Smile More Often

In a study conducted in Sweden, when people looked at others who were smiling, their muscles twitched into smiles involuntarily. Play a smiling game with your children to show them how smiling truly is contagious. The simple act of smiling can spread the warmth of kindness far and wide, as others smile in return and continue to pass the smile on.

4. Thank You, Please, and More

Teaching good manners, such as being respectful to others, greeting people properly, and speaking to people in a polite way, is also an important part of raising a kind child. You can begin teaching children to sign please and thank you even before they can talk.

And since you live with your children, you will reap the benefits of having pleasant and nice individuals growing up in your home.

5. Kind Words

Teach your child to get into the habit of saying only positive things to themselves and others - the sort of things that will make someone feel good rather than sad. Ask your child to try to remember to think before saying something about someone and to take the time to consider how they might feel if someone said it to them. For example, if their friend asks them whether they like a drawing they did and they don't like it, they can practice finding something positive about it. ‘I liked the colours you used,’ or ‘You made a nice, big house’ rather than mention what they did not like about it. Be a good role model and try to be nice to people you interact with throughout the day. Let your child see you tell the checkout person at the supermarket to have a nice day, thank a waiter for serving you, or compliment a neighbour on the hard work they did in their garden. Be the behaviour you want to see in your child.

6. Guard Against Spoiling

Kind children are also children who are charitable, who know that their parents cannot buy everything they want for them (and understand why they should not get everything they want), and are patient, thankful, and have self-control. Children cannot be grateful for what they have unless they are given an opportunity to delay gratification. It is okay to say no when your child asks for a new toy or an expensive gadget. Instead, tell them they need to wait until their birthday or you could teach them how to save up their pocket money for something they want.

Another way to delay gratification is to link privileges, like screen time and playdates, to good behaviour. However, never confuse a bribe with a reward. Bribing your child will only fuel an ungrateful attitude. Saying, ‘Here's a balloon, now be good, is a bribe. A reward, on the other hand, is about saying, ‘You were really well behaved today. I am really proud of you. You earned a balloon.’

You also may want to implement a reward system. This type of plan helps children feel good about their accomplishments. They also learn to appreciate their privileges much more when they have actually earned them

7. Practice Random Acts of Kindness

Random acts of kindness can be anything that will make someone's day a little brighter. They don't even have to know who did it. Make it fun and ask your children what act of kindness they would like to do. You could make it a weekend activity so the whole family can get involved.

8. Try Empathy Charades

Having empathy for others requires putting yourself in someone else's shoes and imagining how they feel. Take it in turns to draw images of faces on paper and guess the emotion that is being displayed. You could also act out different emotions and guess what the other person is feeling.

9. Volunteer

Whether you take small or big actions, help other people or help animals, there is always a way to lend a helping hand. Involving children in volunteer work teaches them that it feels good to be helpful. You might do a litter pick, make home-made cards for a local retirement home, or take outgrown toys and clothes to a local charity. Perhaps your children will be inspired to fundraise for a good cause. There is no limit to what your kindness can do.

When you encourage kindness in your child, they will feel better not only about the world they live in but also about themselves. Kindness will not only lift up your child and the others around them, it will help them grow to be a happy and loving person so take advantage of the natural instincts we are all born with and encourage children to practice kindness in their everyday lives. ​

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