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Parenting Press: Discouraging Unkindness in Children

Tip—Help your children develop alternatives to unkind behavior and role-play options with them.

Last week we looked at ways to encourage kind behavior in our children. This week consider how to discourage unkind, mean, and rude behavior. Admittedly, there is a difference between a child being self-absorbed and just ignoring someone with a need and a child who goes out of his way to tease or be mean to another. However different the level of unkindness, the goal is the same: to resist the rewards of unkind behavior and encourage empathy in its place.

First, be aware that our culture does not particularly value kindness in comparison to achievement, power, humor, or competition. Being aware of others’ feelings or situations and responding to them in a caring fashion is something that your children will likely not be rewarded for in our society. If they make a funny joke at someone else’s expense, beat someone at a game, or get a better grade, chances are that the attention they receive from others will be immediate and positive. Consequently, it is primarily from their families (and their places of worship, if families so choose) that children receive guidance for being kind and discouragement for being unkind.

Tools—Being kind is not a value present at birth. But temperament does influence this value and temperament is definitely present at birth. Psychologist Harriet Heath, Ph.D., author of Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire, lists two temperament traits that affect how easily a child learns kindness.

“If a child is emotionally sensitive, he will be more aware of how another is feeling, which gives him useful information when he wants to care for another person,” writes Heath. “A child who is very focused on his own affairs and who is not a strong ‘people’ person has more difficulty in thinking about the needs of others.”

If your child does not demonstrate kindness, it may be that she hasn’t been taught well enough yet, or it may be that her temperament does not dispose her toward considering others. The good news is that all children can be taught kindness and all children can be discouraged from being unkind. Here are a few ideas for eliminating unkindness.

  • Recognize consequences. Educational psychologist Michele Borba says it’s critical that parents and teachers help children recognize that unkind actions do have consequences. She recommends being very clear about  unkind behavior you object to and why you disapprove. For example, “Telling Arianna she can’t come to your birthday party was mean. Making someone feel left out hurts her feelings. That’s not allowed in our family.”
  • Encourage empathy. You can do this by requiring your child to think about how the victim feels. Say things like, “Look, she’s crying. How do you think she feels?” “Can you see how upset he is? How did your comment make him feel?” “How would you feel if someone did that to you?” Sometimes children will deny that what they said or did was really so bad—“Oh, he can’t even take a joke. I don’t get mad when someone says that to me.” You can make the point that the person receiving the comment is the one who gets to decide how it feels, similar to how a person being touched, shoved, or hit is the one who gets to decide if it hurts.
  • Make amends. Give your child a chance to make amends to the person she’s hurt. She might apologize, do something kind for that person, or make some other nice gesture. Ask your child, “What can you do to make her feel better?”
  • What to do instead. Not only do children need unkind behavior to be stopped, they need to know what to do or say instead. For example, when the little girl was excluded from the birthday party, the parent could offer her daughter the following options:
  • Link to book description 
    • Refrain from talking about birthday parties at school; if you don’t bring up the subject, Arianna is unlikely to ask about it.
    • If Arianna asks you if she can come to your party, say, “My mom is in charge of the guest list.”
    • If Arianna is being unkind first and you are tempted to be unkind in return, just shrug your shoulders and say, “Whatever.” Then walk away.
    • Change the subject. Suggest that everyone play a game and immediately start playing.

You’ll find more practical tips you can use right now in Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire by Harriet Heath, Ph.D

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