Teaching kindness and caring in our children

Submitted by Jessica Trussell,

When we consider when and how to teach children about kindness and caring, it really begins in infancy. The quality of care an infant receives can greatly influence their later development. If babies learn that the adults around them are kind and dependable, they will learn to trust the world and themselves. When caregivers respond sensitively to babies' needs, they feel valued and important. When infants feel loved and valued by those who care for them, the foundation of kindness toward others is being established.

If we are consistent in what we expect of children, then they are able to develop predictable views of the world. When guiding young children, we should be consistent and clear with directions and explanations. If our requests and reasons are inconsistent, then children often become confused about what is really expected of them. The opposite also holds true, when we are consistent with requests and reasons, children feel safe in exploring the world around them and trying new things. Children feel secure that the adults around them will consistently guide and teach them.

Luckily, children are born with the capacity to act kindly toward others. Adults do play an important role in whether or not children continue to act in kind ways. If children experience supportive behaviors, have reasonable expectations and rules are consistently enforced, they are more likely to show caring and compassionate behaviors. Here are some suggestions for developing kindness and caring in children:

  • Set a good example by acting respectfully toward others.
  • Communicate the importance of helpfulness and generosity.
  • Use consistent rules and reasons for guiding children.
  • Talk with children about the feelings of others and the consequences of children's unkind behavior.
  • Create opportunities for children to be empathic.
  • Express appreciation when children behave kindly toward others.

Encouraging kindness in children is an important responsibility for all adults who care for children in any aspect. Kind and caring behavior appears early in life and continues to develop across the lifespan. Examples of caring behavior include:

  • A toddler sharing blocks with another child;
  • School-age children collecting canned goods for a food bank; or
  • An adolescent volunteering to shovel snow for an elderly neighbor.

Children are learning constantly from the words and actions of adults around them. The best way we can teach children is by example. Even with our busy schedule, we can easily involve children in acts of kindness. By helping an elderly neighbor or giving items to a local women’s shelter, adults can demonstrate concern for others. Then, we can reinforce kindness by explaining why it is important to be kind and help others.

To be an effective role model, we must match our words with our actions. For example, if children see someone compliment another person’s new clothes, but make fun of the way the clothes look when the person is gone, children receive a powerful message. They learn that saying one thing and doing another is acceptable behavior.

Expressing appreciation for kind and thoughtful behavior is another way to set a good example for children. These actions help children to experience the positive feelings of being kind to others. By reinforcing children's kind behavior, it helps them to understand that their kindness makes a positive difference.

There are many things we can do to increase kindness and caring in the children, and adults, around us. Taking the time to set a good example by lending a hand, thanking someone for the help that they provide and creating opportunities for children to help are just a few of the things we can do. What is something you can do today, to show kindness and caring for the people around you?

Jessica Trussell is a human development specialist for the Univerity of Missouri Extension.