How ToParenting Styles

Parenting for Kindness and Compassion

Recently our local newspaper reran a Washington Post article entitle “Five ways to raise kids to be kind”. The article reports on research led by Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, which shows that more parents are concerned with their kids’ academic achievement than their social behavior. The article goes on to list 5 things a parent can do to raise kind kids:

1. Make caring for others a priority
2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude
3. Expand your child’s circle of concern
4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor
5. Guide kids in managing destructive feelings

The article isn’t entirely clear where this particular advice stems from, but the idea that there are actual researched techniques that I can use in this aspect of my parenting appeals enormously to me. Small children are selfish and bratty and it’s sometimes hard to see a future in which they spontaneously think of others before themselves! (Although to be fair, my six-year old has shown moments of incredible kindness and compassion – when she isn’t acting like a tormented 16 year old).

Empathy in little ones

windowsDespite my initial thoughts on the subject, I’ve learned that children actually display empathy from a very young age and that they will display empathy to adults and strangers from around one year old. In fact, researchers have demonstrated that even younger babies show empathy, in that they will start to cry if they hear other unhappy babies. This is clearly true since my 11 month-old demonstrates this exact behavior (except in reverse); we have one of those weird-ass talking baby dolls at home and when Fynn hears the giggle she merrily laughs along.

Now, I don’t generally compare children to other animals, (at least not in public), but it doesn’t really surprise me that studies comparing children and chimpanzees show that both have an inherent desire to help others, implying that there is an innate tendency to empathize.

So children are capable of empathy but that doesn’t mean they will automatically sympathise with or act kindly towards their fellows. I mean, my daughter is capable of making her bed, but …

As with most things, parenting can help create the environment and experience needed to strengthen your child’s ability to empathize. There are some great articles on on empathy, including why empathy needs to be taught (or at the very least reinforced) and how to do it (practical parenting tips are always welcome). I suggest reading the actual articles but here’s a ten point list of some of the things that parents can / should do to teach empathy:

1.  Don’t ignore your child’s own needs, and teach them resilience
2.  Treat your child as a thinking person with their own mind, ideas and opinion.
3.  Model and encourage sympathy for other people in everyday situations.
4.  Help your kids discover what they have in common with others.
5.  Teach kids about the hot-cold empathy gap (as in, it’s hard to remember what cold feels like when you are hot)
6.  Help kids explore other roles and perspectives, though games, reading etc
7.  Get your kid to “make a face” while they try to imagine how someone else feels to make the emotions more tangible.
8.  Help kids develop a sense of morality that depends on internal self-control, not on rewards or punishments.
9.  Teach (older) kids about mechanisms of moral disengagement.
10. Focus on the positive and inspire good feelings through pleasant social interactions and physical affection.

(On a side note, I really need to work on teaching Rose how to bounce back from distress – all tips are welcome!)

cookingHelpful and Happy? Tell me more!

It turns out that getting your kids to do the caring thing is just the starting point. Your reaction to them after they have been kind or helpful is apparently pivotal in determining whether this behaviour becomes entrenched or not. So for example, when your child does something helpful don’t rush to reward them with a treat; let the satisfaction of helping be its own reward. The research on this particular point has been duplicated with children of different age groups and shows that children who receive a verbal affirmation or no reward after assisting someone are more likely to help again than kids who were rewarded with a material rewards (like toys).

And here I though bribery was the answer to all parenting dilemmas!

Another useful finding about helpful kids is that a simple shift in how you speak to your helping child can make all the difference. Apparently, referring to your child as a helper, as in “Thanks for being such a great helper” is better than focusing on their action, as in “Thanks for helping me”. For years we’ve been taught not to label our children negatively (“You are so naughty!”) but to speak of negative behaviour (“That thing you did was so naughty”), so I guess it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the opposite is true.

Furthermore, and perhaps more intuitively, there is research to show that kids who are forced to give are less likely to give as willingly as kids who are given the choice.

And to top off this self-fulfilling fountain of good-naturedness: helpful, caring children are happier!

I had long been aware that adults who give and help are happier than those who don’t (this was one of the gems I picked up in Richard Wiseman’s fabulous book 59 Seconds). The same is apparently true of children. I’ve noticed in our own family that Rose seems to find helping out rather satisfying and I had attributed this to the praise she receives from us when she does her bit, but it seems that children just feel happy when they give to others.

Acknowledgement: The information included in this post draws heavily on the articles posted by Gwen Dewar on – Thanks for all the great info!

Photos by the author. All rights reserved.


The mother of two girls (Rose, 6, and Fynn, 11 months), Mombot is a feminist and human rights activist based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has a fairly laid back approach to parenting if you ignore the regular rants about the proliferation of the colour pink, the lack of diversity amongst "girls' " toys, the scarcity of good role models for girls in the media etc etc etc.

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