Teaching Kindness

Your child is growing and learning about kindness each day. She might give a hug, kiss a scraped knee or share her favorite Elmo doll with a friend.

Child development experts call these kind acts "prosocial" behaviors.

Some prosocial behavior is for selfish reasons: to get approval or to get something in return. But kindness for kindness' sake is the goal. Of course, you won't always know what motivates your Sproutlet, but there are things you can do to promote a more caring child.

Avoid Rewards

Giving children concrete rewards such as candy or money for their behavior may encourage kind behavior, but not for the right reasons. Praise is a better option, such as a hug or compliment, although it still is not the best way to encourage selfless acts of kindness.

Focus on Empathy & Sympathy

The most effective way to promote kind acts is to help your child develop her capacity for empathy and sympathy.

Empathy is feeling another's emotion, or what that person might feel in a given situation. For example, if your child sees someone who is sad and feels sad as a consequence, that is empathy. If your child hears a news story about children who are victims of an earthquake and feels sad, that also is empathy.

Sympathy usually stems from experiencing another's emotions (empathy). After feeling empathy, your child may feel sympathy, or concern for another person. Sympathy can motivate us to help one another.

Support Your Child

Your child's needs must first be met before she can manage her own emotions. Be supportive and sensitive in all your everyday moments and your child will grow more empathetic and sympathetic. Never underestimate the power of being a kind role model.

Minimize Punishment

Your warm parenting style helps your child develop skills that regulate her actions. Well-regulated children can experience sympathy without being overwhelmed by negative emotions they feel when empathizing. A child who is often punished will try to avoid the punishment rather than attending to the needs of others.

If your child cannot manage those feelings of empathy, experiencing the pain of others can be a tremendously negative experience. When this occurs, you must first focus on alleviating her distress rather than that of a needy other.

Point Out Consequences

When a child hurts someone's feelings or acts aggressively against another child, use this as a teaching opportunity. Point out the consequences and help your child understand what the other is feeling and thinking. You might say, "See, you hit Mary and now Mary is crying."

Discuss Feelings

Never dismiss or minimize a negative emotion, such as: "It is not that bad." Never punish negative feelings. Allow your child to express negative feelings and then work through them together.  As your child understands her own feelings, she will become more sympathetic.

Discuss the feelings of others in everyday conversations. Talk about how events are associated with specific emotions. For example: "Poor children who don't have food must feel happy to receive food."

Deal With Emotions

Help your child deal with her emotions. If she is anxious at bedtime, teach her a comforting song or give her a nightlight. If she is distressed getting ready for school, help her make a ready-for-school task chart. Dealing with her emotions will help her know how to help others.

Foster Positive Self-Perceptions

Help your child perceive herself as a kind person. You might say, "You helped because you are a generous person." When your child sees herself in this way, it often yields future selfless acts.

Give Freely

Serve and give as a family. Donate toys, books or small amounts of money to needy children. Never force such acts, but encourage participation. Your child will learn so much from the process.