“Share your toys” is something we have been telling 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 1.
What is kindness for kids
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 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 helping, 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 we feel internally, the more likely we are to 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 from adults. When children 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 follows 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 they’re increasingly more divided than ever, being kind, whenever possible, can help make the world a better place.
Peace and harmony
Kindness is not only the foundation of a decent society, but it 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 recipients and actors.
Whether it is supporting others emotionally, helping with chores, or including others, being kind to others makes us feel good9.
Being kind and caring for others 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 being kind and lowering stress and negative feelings.
The act of kindness increases one’s sense of well-being, positive emotions, feeling of interconnectedness, inner peace, and sense of purpose. It is common for kind people to be self-accepting, mindful, and have positive relationships10.
Improved child development
Also, kindness is beneficial for children. Caring acts significantly improve their prosocial skills, as well as their relationship with others11.
In a 4-week study, students aged 9 to 11 were instructed to perform three acts of kindness per week. Those students showed significant improvement in social skills as evidenced by an increase in peer acceptance12.
In students, being considerate to others is correlated with academic achievement.
How to teach a child to be kind
Developing kindness and compassion for others is an integral part of young children’s social development.
However, teaching children kindness is not a one-size-fits-all task.
Children need to be taught in a developmentally appropriate way that includes both across-age and within-age variation.
A home environment filled with kindness
Kindness begins at home. Caregiving behavior in children doesn’t appear spontaneously without being exposed to adults who demonstrate and practice nurturing parenting13.
Children 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.
Kindness is also reciprocal. Those who recipe 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 in parenting.
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 cruel” and firm).
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 compassionate adults. It isn’t just lip service; Being kind must be shown in our actions as well. Positive parenting can help us discipline while being kind and firm.
Read and discuss literature together
The concept of kindness can be difficult for young children to comprehend compared to actual behavior and results.
Among the three components of kindness, parents can start with teaching kind behaviors because young children’s understanding of kindness is very concrete and factual.
Character-development literature16 or picture books17 can help them understand what constitutes the practice of kindness and its outcomes. It can indirectly shape and instill important ethical values. These stories can serve as good starting points for discussions about kindness.
Parents can choose books that are age-appropriate and consistent with the moral principles they hold dear.
Form considerate habits
Young children learn to be kind with concrete actions that give them practical ways to show kindness in the real world.
Encourage children to do something nice for others every day. These powerful habits can help them develop into compassionate people.
Acts of kindness can include being caring, helpful, considerate, friendly, and generous to others.
Celebrate kindness but also 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 should not be expected.
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.
One more reason to instill kindness in children with kind-and-firm parenting. When parents are harsh, children simply will not be able to think about how to be nice to others.
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- 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
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