I remember overhearing a mom share her method for getting her kids to practice good manners and kindness: Every time a stranger complimented her children on their manners, they earned points which they could later cash in for a toy. "Noooooo!" I thought. For any habit to stick, we need to be intrinsically motivated to continue the behavior. So here was this mom telling her kids that if they caught other people’s attention with their good manners, they would get points. She was emphasizing the points rather than the natural benefits of kindness and, at the same time, placing tremendous importance on the opinions of others. In our home, we try hard to raise humans that are kind and think independently. This points method seemed like double trouble.
Well then, what works?
When my daughter was in the toddler years, she was painfully shy so my husband and I were careful never to push her into conversation for fear of making it harder for her. This meant we never even considered pushing manners on her either. Instead, we made an extra effort to model behavior rather than insist on it. When leaving a store, we said thank you to the people who worked there. When we needed something, we asked kindly. We intentionally practiced the behavior we hoped to see. But this covered manners. The key to true kindness is empathy, defined as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." It isn't enough to express empathy to your loved ones; you want to model empathy towards strangers and those outside of your inner circle as well.
How can you teach empathy?
1. Show Your Child That His Feelings Matter
The first lesson in empathy starts with your child. When he falls, resist the tendency to say, "You're fine" and instead ask him how he is feeling. Show him with your words and your tone that you are empathetic to what he is experiencing at the moment, whether it is a slight from another child or a bruise from a fall on the playground. Empathy doesn't mean you are saying he is right about what happened with the other child; it means that you understand his feelings.
2. Don't Force Your Child to Say Sorry
When your daughter pushes another kid out of her way to get down the slide, replace "Tell Jack you are sorry" with "Look at the sad face you gave Jack." This teaches your child to recognize the consequences of her actions.
3. Use the Larger World
When you pass a homeless person on the street, acknowledge him and talk to your child about the unfortunate situation this person is now in and how you feel for him. When you are watching basketball with your daughter and her favorite team loses, express empathy by talking about how the teammates must be feeling at the moment. Talk about the feelings of the winning players as well.
4. Apologize Often and Completely
When kids hear their parents apologizing with ease, it helps them to feel more comfortable expressing a range of emotions. When you say to your child, "I am sorry I yelled" or they watch you apologizing to your spouse, it encourages them to do the same. "You were right about the time it would take to get here. We should have left earlier." Apologies and forgiveness are a big part of empathy.
5. Identify Emotions
“I feel so badly that I missed Aunt Sally’s birthday.” “I am frustrated by the situation.” "I am disappointed that our friends canceled." "I am so happy to spend time with my brother." When kids see us identifying and sharing our emotions, they are more apt to do the same.