A friend recently confided in me that her son, age 7, is “such a softie.” She cherishes his tenderness but worries he isn’t learning to be, in her words, tough. In the current climate of individualism and look-at-me culture, it makes sense that parents would choose to groom their children in grit over politeness, but parenting experts say they need both. Mettle and resilience shouldn’t develop at the expense of empathy and kindness — so-called “pro-social” skills that help build relationships at home, in the community, and at work. And they’re likely to lead to greater contentment.
“We’re recognizing that expressions of empathy, altruism, and compassion are much more central to our well-being than we had previously recognized,” says Maurice Elias, Ph.D., clinical psychology professor at Rutgers University and author of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, Socially Skilled Child. “The road to lasting, genuine happiness is paved by service, by being helpful, and doing for others.”
Essential social skills begin to develop during the earliest years of life and shape the circuitry of our brain as we age. Even children as young as 18 months exhibit pro-social behaviors, and they need parents and caregivers to help them nurture and navigate those behaviors, says early childhood expert Ellen Booth Church, a professor at Nova Southeastern University. “Research shows that children who are successful in later years are those who learned early on to be part of a group, respect each other’s opinions, listen, and comfortably share an idea without putting somebody else down.”
How do we cultivate gratitude and empathy in our children? Here, experts share how parents can help little ones develop their kindness “muscles”:
1. Model kindness
“The words you use around your children, directly or indirectly, should reflect your values. The more they hear them, the more they will live up to them and by them,” says Sylvia Rimm, Ph.D., a child psychologist and parenting expert who has authored 24 books. Be wary of disrespectful language that is fundamentally unkind, even when you think your children aren’t listening.
2. Own your mistakes
Acknowledge the pain and disappointment you cause your children when you screw up. “We often expect our kids to learn from us as we’re snapping at them, and that’s difficult to do,” says Carla Naumburg, Ph.D., a clinical social worker and author of Ready, Set, Breathe: Practice Mindfulness with Your Children for Fewer Meltdowns and a More Peaceful Family..
3. Be kind to your children
You don’t want to be a doormat but “kindness is not the same as being disengaged or permissive,” explains Naumburg. Set boundaries with empathy: Instead of name-calling, frame feedback using sentences such as, “I don’t like when you do X.”
4. Nix the negative self-talk
If you disparage your appearance, your job, and yourself, your children are likely to model that. “You have to have a good relationship with yourself in order to build a trusting relationship with your kids,”says psychologist Liba Lurie.
5. Give them periods of undivided attention
The brain’s frontal lobe, responsible for decoding social interaction, develops during early childhood and seems to depend on authentic human interaction. Limit your (and their) screen time, and give your child the quality time that will help them grow empathetic abilities.
6. Volunteer together
Choose an organization that includes a hands-on service component that allows your child to experience firsthand the positivity of helping.
7. Broaden their world
Invite someone over from a different social circle. Encourage your child to attend the birthday party of a classmate who may not be a close friend. Support your child’s stretch towards inclusion.
8. Talk about empathy
Ask questions that help build your child’s empathy for people who are being treated unfairly. Help your child imagine what it feels like to be left out. When your child is unkind, discern what triggered the bad behavior.
9. Help them with cues
Teach your kid to listen to tone of voice, posture, and facial expression to recognize distress in other people.
10. Adopt a pet
Studies show that children who care for pets have greater empathy.
11. Learn about other cultures
Talk about how other societies view empathy and kindness. In Native American philosophy, for example, generosity is axiomatic: The purpose of possessions is to share with others. The monotheistic religions and other faiths promote empathy through acts of loving-kindness.