“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” -Matthew 7:12
Kindness. We all want our children to be kind. We certainly don’t want them to become the bully on the playground that we remember so clearly from our childhoods. How can we teach our toddlers how to be kind towards others? Why should we focus on teaching kindness, versus the more popular skills that we often worry about, like academics?
Luckily, teaching toddlers how to be kind isn’t rocket science. Point out kindness to your child when you see it. Model being kind. Help your toddler connect the dots between their behavior and how it affects others.
If you’re looking to cultivate compassion in your little one, keep reading to see how you can build kindness in six easy steps.
Teaching kindness is more important than teaching academic skills
Understandably, you may be worrying about your child’s academic development. Does he know his ABCs? Should he know how to count to ten by now? Is it too early to start teaching him how to read? Teaching your child how to be kind towards others is way more valuable than teaching any academic skill at this age!
When children learn to value and practice kindness, it has a positive effect on their health. Research shows that people’s self-esteem and happiness get a boost when they are kind; plus, kindness acts like a natural antidepressant, producing what’s called a “helper’s high.” Learning your ABCs certainly doesn’t have that same effect.
When we practice being kind and compassionate, our brain releases serotonin. This improves our learning abilities, memory, mood, sleep, and even digestion. Studies have also shown being kind reduces stress and increases our body’s immunity, thanks to a release of oxytocin (the “feel good” hormone) which lowers blood pressure. Being kind does good for our body!
Furthermore, practicing kindness also helps our children to develop empathy, a critical social skill. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand how they are feeling. Using empathy, you “tune in” and pay attention to another person’s emotions and experience, altering your behavior accordingly, usually with kindness.
While empathic people tend to connect to others on a deeper level, they also foster more willingness and involvement in the home and the community. Neighborhoods and communities with higher social cohesion experience lower rates of violent crime.
Bottom line – teaching kindness is one of the most important things you can teach your toddler.
So whether you have a child that misses subtle social cues from others, has difficulty putting themselves in another person’s shoes, or has a tough time knowing when to be kind, here are some easy tips you can use to build up kindness and empathy in your child:
1. Talk about kindness when you see it (or don’t see it)
Having discussions about kindness with your toddler can help introduce them to the concept of being kind.
Thinking of the Golden Rule from above, you could explain to your child that “we treat others the way we would like to be treated ourselves.” Children should start grasping this concept between the ages of 3 – 5 and begin to recognize how others may feel (more on that below).
As you go about your day, point out some examples of being kind (or being unkind) that your child can understand.
- “You helped me water the flowers. That was so kind of you!”
- “You wouldn’t want someone to make fun of your bandaid, so please don’t tease your brother about his. That’s not kind.”
- “I know you’re having a dance party with the loud music, but look at your baby sister’s face. Does she look like she’s having fun? I don’t think so. Let’s be kind and turn down the volume for her. You can turn it back up when I take her outside.”
- “You didn’t like it when your friend hit you. That wasn’t kind, was it?”
By inviting conversations about and pointing out acts of kindness, your little one will start to understand what it means to be kind and empathetic.
2. Label others’ emotions.
Point out someone showing a big emotion, such as excitement, anger, or sadness. Ask your son or daughter what they think that person is feeling.
Teaching your child to notice the emotions of others helps them to do two things, which in turn develops their empathy:
- -identify non-verbal cues from other people as to how they are feeling
- -put meaning behind the emotion
For example, if you see a child at the park who is excited to play with his ball, point it out. “What do you think he’s feeling?”
3. Model kindness.
The best way to teach kindness is by example. As early as eight months, babies begin to imitate simple actions and expressions. You’ve seen how a toddler watches everything. You would think they had eyes in the back of their head!
So if we tease loved ones, make fun of strangers, or use harmful punishments like isolation or spanking, we are not modeling kindness to our children. Our kids pick up on our behaviors. Reflect for a moment. Do you ever find yourself doing these things?
If you spank your child because he hit his sister, are you showing him kindness? You told him not to hit, yet you’re hitting him.
Like a chip off the old block, if we want our children to be kind, we must be kind, positive role models for them.
4. Explain how their behavior affects others.
Without shaming your child, guide him to notice when his behavior is affecting others around him. Toddlers between the ages of 18 – 36 months are all about me, “I,” so they do not always pick up on social clues from others.
For example, your child threw a toy at another child during a playdate. You could say something like, “You hit him with that toy, and now he is sad. That toy you threw made a red mark on his face. You wouldn’t want him to throw a toy at you.”
5. Use kind words and actions.
Tell and show your child that doing nice things for others makes you feel good.
Wave hello as you drive by a person walking on the sidewalk. Hold the door open for the person behind you. Tell the customer service rep at the grocery checkout thank you. Give someone a compliment about their cool face mask. Smile. A little kindness goes a long way to make someone’s day.
Do unto others as you would have them do to you, and your child will pick up on this.
6. Read books on kindness.
Use picture books to point out characters’ feelings and prompt conversations about kindness.
Some of my favorite books on kindness are: