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Parenting Press: Instilling Kindness and Compassion in Children

Tip—Consciously model kind behavior for your child and be quick to notice it in him.

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The winter holidays seem like an appropriate time to take a good look at how we go about instilling kindness and compassion in our children. Are we doing a good job? Is it enough?

We all want warm-hearted children who are guided by an internal moral compass—children who will care about the welfare and feelings of others and act on those emotions without thought to their own gain.

The question is, how do we go about creating and nurturing that kind of child? It sounds like a tall order, but in reality, instilling values in your children happens one day at a time, one teaching moment at a time. The present is always a good time to start, to continue, or to give renewed focus to this project.

Tools—Psychologist Harriet Heath, Ph.D., author of Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire, points out that being caring and compassionate is not a value present at birth. This is something that must be taught. It requires developing empathy (noticing and caring how another person feels), thoughtful decision-making, and problem- solving skills.

Here are a few ideas for parents on instilling kindness in children.

  • Be a good role model. Children learn from what they see you do. They learn from how you treat them.

    If you take the time to bring meals to a sick person, help elderly friends with yard work, take someone to a doctor’s appointment, or care for a friend’s children, your kids will notice.

    If you are in the habit of noticing your child’s emotions and asking gently about them, your children will learn that other people’s feelings are to be noticed and respected.

    Don’t be afraid to comment on your own kindnesses—when you’re role modeling for your kids, it doesn’t count as self-congratulation. You can say things matter-of-factly:, “Grandma was really cheered up when we brought her those flowers and visited with her. It really makes me feel good to do something kind for her.”

  • Talk about kindness. Have conversations with your kids about what kindness really is and why it’s important. For example, “It’s good to notice how people feel—then you can tell if they need help. Lots of people are shy or too embarrassed to ask for help so you have to be on the lookout” or, “Being kind means that you don’t expect anything in return. The person doesn’t have to pay you or do something nice back. You’re kind because it’s the right thing to do and it makes the world a better place.”
  • Notice when your child is kind. Watch for moments of kindness in your children and quietly remark on them. It’s a parenting truism that whatever behavior you give attention to, that’s what you’ll see more of. If you see your preschooler give the baby a toy, say, “That was kind of you.” If your 10-year-old helps his younger sister with her homework, pat him on the shoulder and say, “It makes me feel good inside to see you help your sister.” If your child tells of showing the new kid around the playground at recess, you could comment, “Wow. I’ll bet he was really grateful that someone was kind enough to be friendly to him. I’m proud you were that person.”

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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