“Share your toys” is something we have been teaching our kids since the very first time they played with other children.
Kindness and compassion are vital in the development of young children’s social competence and socio emotional skills1.
What is kindness for kids – Definition
Being kind is an intentional act that benefits others for its own sake when one is not required to do so. It is generally regarded as a virtue. A kind person shows a genuine, deep, and selfless concern for people without expecting anything in return.
Dr. Malti at the University of Toronto believes that there are three components in the practice of kindness – kind emotions, kind cognitions, and kind behaviors2.
Kind emotions include sympathy, empathy, respect, guilt for wrongdoing, and pride for acting ethically3.
Kind cognitions come from understanding how the act of kindness affects others and ourselves.
Kind actions are the acts of prosocial behavior as simple as giving a helping hand, cooperating, or comforting another, or as complex as sharing with others or including the discriminated.
The more these three elements are incorporated into daily life activities, the more transformational power they have. For example, the more kind emotions we feel internally, the more likely we are to show kind act accordingly.
The development of kindness in children
Kindness may not be understood by young children as it is by adults. It is conceptualized differently at different ages due to different cognitive understanding.
Children at certain ages may articulate consistent, rational reasons for judging kindness differently. When they are young, kindness is likely measured in terms of the consequences, whereas older children consider the intentions of the person who performs the act4.
Kindness does not develop in a homogeneous, linear fashion. Between the ages of 5 and 7, children shift to judge kindness in adult-like ways5.
Empathy, the vicarious sharing of the emotions of others, is one of the main kind emotions that motivate kind behaviors6. The development of empathy then follows in older kids from middle childhood to early adolescence7.
Why kindness is important
Make the world a better place
Kindness has been conceptualized as a virtue and value in both Western and Eastern philosophical traditions.
In a world where people are increasingly more divided than ever, being kind, whenever possible, can help make the world a better place.
Peace and harmony
Doing kind things is not only the foundation of a decent society, but is also an important antidote to violence. It contributes to tolerance and peace in the world.
The Dalai Lama believes that kindness promotes open communication and meaningful dialogue that can maintain or create harmonious relationships between people and nations8.
Contributes to happiness
Being kind is beneficial to both the recipients and the actors.
Whether it is supporting others emotionally on a bad day, helping with chores, or including others, random acts of kindness makes us feel good9.
Doing good deeds can be personally rewarding in addition to reducing social ills.
Less stress and better wellbeing
Better physical and mental health is also one of the benefits of kindness. There is a correlation between kindness, and lowered stress and negative feelings.
Small acts of kindness increases one’s sense of well-being, positive emotions, feeling of interconnectedness, inner peace, and sense of purpose. Kind people tend to be self-accepting, act mindful, and develop positive relationships10.
Improved child development
Child kindness is particularly beneficial. Caring acts significantly improve children’s prosocial skills and their relationships with others11.
In a 4-week study, students aged 9 to 11 were instructed to perform three acts of kindness per week. Those kind children showed significant improvement in social skills as evidenced by an increase in peer acceptance12.
Being considerate to others is also correlated with academic achievement.
How to teach kindness to kids
Developing kindness and compassion for others is an integral part of young children’s social emotional development.
However, teaching children kindness is not a one-size-fits-all task.
They need to be taught in a developmentally appropriate way that includes both across-age and within-age variation.
1. A home environment filled with kindness
Kindness begins at home. Kind character traits don’t appear spontaneously in children without being exposed to nurturing adults13.
Kids learn by watching the actions of adults. They need to see that their parents live these concepts in their everyday lives rather than just talk about them.
Younger kids learn to be kind by seeing concrete actions and practical ways to do so in real life.
Kindness is also reciprocal. Those who receive kindness are more likely to show it to others14.
Being kind to your child is easier said than done.
Crazy idea, right? Why would it be hard to be nice to your kids?
Here’s what i mean…
Is it possible to remain kind to your child if they refuse to do homework after your repeated requests?
Are the consequences you give out for not complying with your commands kind?
If you yell at your child because he keeps ignoring you while playing video games, is that being kind?
See what I mean? Unkind behavior is very common at home.
Parents often feel that they cannot be good parents and nice people at the same time.
But that is not true.
A parent can be kind and firm (or at least not being mean).
If parents truly desire to embody the real meaning of kindness, they must make an effort to remain in the kind zone, even when they don’t feel like it.
A warm, responsive and kind home environment can enhance children’s respect and kindness toward others15.
So, model kindness and be a compassionate parent. It isn’t just lip service; Being kind must be shown in our actions as well.
2. Teach them empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand, feel, and share another person’s feelings. It is essential for the development of kindness in children.
The best way to help children develop empathy is to be an emotionally attune parent and show our children understanding and empathy.
Let’s return to the homework example. If your child refuses to do their homework, you are frustrated, but so are they. Show empathy and consider their perspective.
Parents often assume their children avoid homework because they are lazy. Research shows that being lazy is not the most common reason why students struggle with homework or school performance.
When you show empathy, you are demonstrating how to be kind even when you are frustrated, you don’t have to be mean or harsh.
Using kind words and modeling being kind even when you don’t feel like it is a great way to teach children the true meaning of kindness.
3. Practice and form considerate habits
Encourage children to perform little acts of kindness for others on a regular basis.
These powerful habits can help develop thoughtful kids and compassionate people.
Kind deeds like saying hi to an elderly neighbor, donating old toys, and volunteering at the animal shelter can help children practice kindness and feel good about themselves.
Being caring, helpful, considerate, and doing little things for others can make a big difference in people’s lives.
4. Teach the spirit of kindness
Kindness is a selfless act that should be a clear manifestation of virtue, not a manipulation.
Helping others for the sake of receiving rewards or praises in return does not qualify as genuine kindness.
In early childhood, parents can encourage kids to celebrate kind behaviors such as sharing, helping, comforting, and giving to show that they are valued, acknowledged, and celebrated.
However, rewards should only be used sparingly and unexpected.
5. Read and discuss literature together
The concept of kindness can be difficult for younger children to comprehend compared to actual behavior and results.
Among the three components of kindness, parents can start with teaching kind behaviors because the understanding of kindness is very concrete and factual for young kids.
Character-development literature16 or picture books17 can help them understand what constitutes kindness and its outcomes. Stories in these children’s books can indirectly shape and instill ethical values. They serve as good starting points for discussions about being good people and doing nice things for others.
Parents can choose books that are age-appropriate and consistent with the moral principles they hold dear.
6. Teach emotional regulation
The ability to self-regulate emotions is essential to kindness. When you’re angry, depressed, or anxious, it’s hard to be nice to others.
To develop a sense of inner strength and kindness, children must be able to regulate their emotions and respond successfully to environmental challenges18.
A warm, responsive parenting style is associated with better self-regulatory skills. But if parents are harsh, children will not be able to think about how to be nice to others, one more reason to instill kindness in children using kind-and-firm parenting.
- 1.Han HS, Kemple KM. Components of Social Competence and Strategies of Support: Considering What to Teach and How. Early Childhood Educ J. Published online November 30, 2006:241-246. doi:10.1007/s10643-006-0139-2
- 2.Malti T. Kindness: a perspective from developmental psychology. European Journal of Developmental Psychology. Published online October 28, 2020:629-657. doi:10.1080/17405629.2020.1837617
- 3.Malti T, Gummerum M, Ongley S, Chaparro M, Nola M, Bae NY. “Who is worthy of my generosity?” Recipient characteristics and the development of children’s sharing. International Journal of Behavioral Development. Published online January 29, 2015:31-40. doi:10.1177/0165025414567007
- 4.Leahy RL. Development of conceptions of prosocial behavior: Information affecting rewards given for altruism and kindness. Developmental Psychology. Published online January 1979:34-37. doi:10.1037/0012-16220.127.116.11
- 5.Baldwin CP, Baldwin AL. Children’s Judgments of Kindness. Child Development. Published online March 1970:29. doi:10.2307/1127387
- 6.de Waal FBM. Putting the Altruism Back into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online January 1, 2008:279-300. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.59.103006.093625
- 7.Zuffianò A, Colasante T, Buchmann M, Malti T. The codevelopment of sympathy and overt aggression from middle childhood to early adolescence. Developmental Psychology. Published online January 2018:98-110. doi:10.1037/dev0000417
- 8.Piburn S. Dalai Lama: A Policy of Kindness. Motilal Banarsidass Publ.; 2002.
- 9.Curry OS, Rowland LA, Van Lissa CJ, Zlotowitz S, McAlaney J, Whitehouse H. Happy to help? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the effects of performing acts of kindness on the well-being of the actor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Published online May 2018:320-329. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2018.02.014
- 10.Fredrickson BL, Cohn MA, Coffey KA, Pek J, Finkel SM. Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Published online November 2008:1045-1062. doi:10.1037/a0013262
- 11.Flook L, Goldberg SB, Pinger L, Davidson RJ. Promoting prosocial behavior and self-regulatory skills in preschool children through a mindfulness-based kindness curriculum. Developmental Psychology. Published online January 2015:44-51. doi:10.1037/a0038256
- 12.Layous K, Nelson SK, Oberle E, Schonert-Reichl KA, Lyubomirsky S. Kindness Counts: Prompting Prosocial Behavior in Preadolescents Boosts Peer Acceptance and Well-Being. Krueger F, ed. PLoS ONE. Published online December 26, 2012:e51380. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051380
- 13.Berkowitz MW, Grych JH. Fostering Goodness: teaching parents to facilitate children’s moral development. Journal of Moral Education. Published online September 1998:371-391. doi:10.1080/0305724980270307
- 14.Dickinson DL. Theory and Decision. Published online 2000:151-177. doi:10.1023/a:1005274316908
- 15.Malti T, Dys SP. From being nice to being kind: development of prosocial behaviors. Current Opinion in Psychology. Published online April 2018:45-49. doi:10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.07.036
- 16.Almerico GM. Building Character through Literacy with Children’s Literature. Research in Higher Education Journal. 2014;26.
- 17.Retnowati G, Salim RMA, Saleh AY. Effectiveness of Picture Story Books Reading to Increase Kindness in Children Aged 5-6 Years. Lingua Cultura. Published online February 27, 2018:89. doi:10.21512/lc.v12i1.2095
- 18.Malti T, Chaparro MP, Zuffianò A, Colasante T. School-Based Interventions to Promote Empathy-Related Responding in Children and Adolescents: A Developmental Analysis. Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology. Published online February 18, 2016:718-731. doi:10.1080/15374416.2015.1121822