Updated: Sep 24, 2022
By Joanne Foster, Ed.D.
“Intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”
~ Martin Luther King
Learning is like a hug—embracing awareness, thought, and knowledge. But it’s not just about words, numbers, or facts. There are many important skills and aspects of life that children have to grasp as they grow. Perhaps one of the most critical is to be kind.
Here are 15 ways to help little ones develop an experiential understanding and appreciation of kindness.
1. Ask your child what kindness means. What has your child seen or participated in that reflects kindness? It may have to do with sharing, helping to care for pets, looking after plants or the environment, playing nicely with others, using polite words, or smiling… There are many facets to kindness. You might want to draw a colorful picture together or write a poem or a story.
2. Curiosity helps children make sense of the world. Try to anticipate the kinds of questions that your child might have about being kind. For example, “Is it hard?” “Can you be too kind?”
3. Reinforce your child’s actions when he or she has done something kind. “It was so thoughtful of you to comfort your friend when she banged her knee.” Or, “How nice that you were able to find my lost hat. Thank you!” The best kind of reinforcement is immediate, direct, and genuine.
4. Demonstrate kindness. Show children authentic acts of kindness in real time.
“Model the kinds of dispositions that will serve children well in different situations.”
~ (p. 33, ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids)
5. Take time to point out when somebody else does something that evidences caring. Read a story together about someone who is kind. (Here’s a resource list of 35 children’s books on kindness.)
6. Talk about kindness, but also its impact. This includes joy and the joy experienced by others.
7. Be aware that children may be unfamiliar with compassion, empathy, sensitivity, and other virtues that tangle with kindness and in fact overlap in many respects. Chat about this if children seem puzzled. Check out the “Compass Advantage” at Roots of Action—and also the 25 Kindness Quotes that Teach Children to Care on the site. (Many are too sophisticated for very young children, but this one is age-appropriate: “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.” [Dolly Parton])
8. A person can sometimes have difficulty being kind. For example, a child may not be able to reach something, or carry a load, or know how to help. Kids can ask an adult to assist them. Or they can keep trying (within reason and bit by bit) because that’s also kind. Honor children’s capabilities, respect their limitations, encourage their determination, lend a hand, and help them welcome attainable opportunities to be kind.
9. Strive to allay children’s concerns if they see and are worried about situations they cannot resolve (such as homelessness, poverty, illness, or other major or social issues). Emotions can run high when children encounter circumstances that are complex, confusing, or upsetting. Talk about possibilities for making a difference, and consider how you might do something kind and meaningful together.
10. Sing (and share) a song or two about kindness. Early child educator, composer, and musical specialist Nancy Kopman writes: “Songs that help children understand and support others’ experiences and feelings are another important way we can build an understanding/appreciation of what ‘kindness’ means.” Nancy writes and teaches songs relating to child development, including resilience, social-emotional intelligence, confidence, and other ways of growing up strong and supportive. Children can join a music program, participate in a singing circle, and try out various instruments together, sharing fun and also kindness.
11. Holidays are a great time to celebrate thoughtfulness for others—for example, birthday giving (not just getting), Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day. Encourage children to create cards, pictures, and crafts conveying messages of kindness. Parents may want to take a picture of these, or of acts of caring (if not intrusive). Children can make a collage or assemble a scrapbook.
12. Help children “seize the moment” when it’s serendipitous or unexpected. If there’s a sudden opportunity for someone to be kind, then why not be kind? Parents can teach children about mindfulness—appreciating and being present in the moment—and practicing kindness is one way of making any moment better.
13. Think about the concept of daily kindness—and how reinforcing this behavior might become part of a child’s routine. Perhaps there’s a focus to ponder regularly (maybe at bedtime), such as, “Who were you kind to today? Who was kind to you? How did you feel?”
14. Relationships make the world go around. Emphasize the importance of connectivity. This includes strengthening family bonds, forging friendships, and cultivating a sense of community. (In other words, cultivating social intelligence.) And it also includes giving back, which incorporates the element of kindness.
15. Big vs. Little? Young children may wonder if they can really make an impact with small acts of kindness. Yes, they can! Help kids see that no one is too big or too little to disregard the significance of kindness and that everyone appreciates receiving kindness. Here are four inspiring quotes from different child-focused sources, and each can serve as a conversation starter with young children:
“Just because an animal is large, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want kindness; however big Tigger seems to be, remember that he wants as much kindness as Roo.” ~ A.A. Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh)
“No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” ~ Aesop (The Lion and the Mouse)
“Sometimes me think, ‘What is friend?’ and me say, “’Friend is someone to share last cookie with.’” ~ Cookie Monster (Sesame Street).
“There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way to be kind.” ~ Mr. Rogers (Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood)
Perhaps the fourth way is to encourage children to kindle kindness wherever and whenever they can!
Fortify character strengths. They are foundational building blocks that will help to enhance a person’s life throughout the early years and beyond. Kindness is a virtue that has countless benefits and outlets.
There are SO many experiential lessons that adults teach children; however, learning to be kind is undoubtedly one of the most important lessons of all!
And, with that in mind, and coming full circle, here’s one more quote from Martin Luther King. Perhaps the words will serve as a beacon for other parents as they consider how to enrich children’s learning—and everyday lives.
“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” ~ Martin Luther King
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Dr. Joanne Foster is a parent, a multiple award-winning author, and an expert in gifted education and child development. Her newest book is ABCs of Raising Smarter Kids: Hundreds of Ways to Inspire Your Child. She wrote Bust Your BUTS: Tips for Teens Who Procrastinate, and Not Now, Maybe Later: Helping Children Overcome Procrastination. She is co-author (with Dona Matthews) of Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids and Being Smart about Gifted Education. Visit her website at www.joannefoster.ca