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7 Tips for Raising Nice Kids

Insights & Ideas Team •  June 25, 2015 | Home and Family

“Be nice to the puppy.”… “Share your treat with your sister.” Most parents would agree that raising children who are compassionate and caring is a top priority. But is the capacity for kindness innate, like the instinct to cry or smile, or is it something children have to learn?

Turns out, it takes both.

According to researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project, the seeds of empathy, caring and compassion are present in humans from early in life. However, children need nurturing and nudging from parents and other adults throughout childhood for them to become loving and ethical people.

So how, exactly, do parents impart kindness to their children? While the strategies are as diverse as the moms and dads who use them, here are seven ideas that can foster your child’s ability to empathize.

1. Set a good example. Children learn about kindness through everyday interactions with their parents, says Ellen Dinneen, a New Jersey-based family therapist. “Your children see the way you act toward others and learn from your behaviors. If you want your children to act with respect and kindness, model that behavior with your words and your actions. Remember that kindness begets kindness.”

2. Be consistent. “Set clear boundaries around what’s acceptable behavior—and what’s not—and then consistently reinforce those rules,” said Dinneen. “And as your child grows and matures, set the bar higher for their behavior.” That means encouraging them to do the right thing even when it’s hard or unpleasant, requiring them to honor their commitments, and insisting that they are respectful even if their peers or others aren’t behaving this way.

3. Encourage kindness. Children need practice being helpful and caring. Whether it’s giving a friend a hand with homework, pitching in with chores around the house, or helping a neighbor in need, encourage your children to get into the habit of helping others. Over time, they’ll understand that being a helpful friend, sibling, neighbor and human being is something to be valued.

4. Follow up with consequences. If your child slips up and acts unkindly, stick with a simple, concrete punishment, such as a brief time-out or losing TV or cellphone privileges. According to Dinneen, abstract thinking isn’t fully formed in younger children, so often they’re too young to understand that being nice is the right thing to do. “Until your children reach age five or six, your efforts may be best directed at helping them resist their impulses so they don’t get into trouble.”

5. Talk about differences. As your children grow, they start to develop the ability to see the world from another person’s perspective. Talk about what makes each of us different and unique. Don’t let teasing or bullying go unaddressed. And expand your children’s circle of concern by encouraging them to consider the feelings of others beyond family and friends. That might be the new kid in the class, a person with special needs, or someone who looks or sounds different than they do.

6. Say you’re sorry. If you’ve been short-tempered or unkind with your child, apologize and explain how you plan to avoid making that mistake again. “Your child will learn that all people make mistakes, even parents,” said Dinneen.

7. Celebrate kindness. When your child does something kind for someone else, point it out. When you do, praise your child’s character rather than his or her actions. This will help your child to internalize kindness—in other words, saying that he or she is a helpful person leads the child to believe “I am a helpful person.”

The good news for parents is that children are, in a sense, hardwired to become kind. You can build on this natural inclination with gentle guidance that shows your children by words and deeds that everyone is valuable and deserving of compassion. Over time, this will help your children to develop the dignity and self-worth necessary to function independently and with kindness in the real world.

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