NDSU Extension Service - Ramsey County


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            If you ask parents what personality characteristics they would like their children to have when grown, you would probably expect replies that include honesty, ability to get along with others and hard working.  What about kindness?  Some believe that empathy, manners, appropriate behavior to others and kindness in general is on the decline in society.  Are we becoming a nation of rudeness?  How do we go about encouraging kindness in children?

             Kind and caring behavior appears early in life and continues to develop across the lifespan. The great humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer, suggested that adults teach children in three important ways: “The first is by example. The second is by example.  The third is by example.”

            Examples of caring behavior by children might include:

-         Sympathetic crying among groups of babies

-         A toddler comforting a baby doll

-         A toddler sharing blocks with another child

-         A preschooler bringing bandages to an injured classmate

-         A preschooler hugging and comforting a crying sibling

-         School-age children collecting canned goods for a food bank

-         An adolescent volunteering to shovel snow for an elderly neighbor

-         Adolescents speaking out against animal cruelty during a community meeting


            Effective adult role models, match words with actions.  For example, if we compliment someone's new clothes/hair style/vehicle/home, but make fun of the way the item’s appearance 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, you are helping them to understand that their kindness makes a positive difference.  

            “I’m really glad that you shared the blocks with Andy. See how much he likes playing with them!"

            "Your after-school project sounds like a great idea! I'm sure that the nursing home residents will really enjoy hearing you play some songs on the piano."

            Children need to know that the adults in their lives care about them and about others. Children who experience respect and appreciation from adults are more likely to demonstrate caring toward others and to recognize the positive impact of their kindness.

            Children learn to care about others when they feel cared for themselves. Young children learn best when they are not frightened or angry. By using guidance based on love and respect, you can help young children become aware of the consequences of their behavior for others.

            Empathy is defined as "the ability to identify oneself mentally with a person or thing and so understand his/her feelings or meaning."  Wecan practice empathic behavior and encourage school-age children to do the same.  Consider the natural disasters of the past decade. Entire communities have been destroyed by floods or fires and have been rebuilt because of the generous assistance of empathic groups and individuals. When these tragedies occur, talk with children about the needs of those affected and discuss different ways to help. Tell children that every little bit, from a donated coat to a large financial contribution, helps others who are in need.

            Empathy also involves connecting with the feelings and needs of things other than people, such as animals and the environment.  Talk with children about the importance of keeping the environment clean for people and animals.  As a family, participate in organized trash pick-up efforts and practice recycling at home and at school. Age appropriate responses that showcase kindness include:

            8 to 18 Months – A child can understand that their behavior can make another happy or sad. "If I make a silly face at Andrew, he will smile and laugh."  Children will understand adult instructions for kind behavior when words are combined with actions. If the adult instructs: "Be gentle with the baby" and softly strokes baby's cheek and neck, a  8-18 month-old will understand and imitate adult behavior.

            2 to 3 Years - Children begin to show emphatic behavior spontaneously.  Without prodding, they may comfort a crying peer.  Children begin taking turns, say, "Please" and "Thank You", and helps clean up at home and in the classroom.

            4 to 6 Years - Children begin to recognize concept of fairness though their response may be along the lines of life being unfair to them - "His piece of cake is bigger than mine!"   They can plan in advance to do something nice for another. "When my clothes are too small, I can give them to someone else.”

            6 to 12 Years – Children can take the perspective of another and can recognize possible reasons for another's feelings and actions. "Jason is the new kid this year. I wonder if he's lonely because he hasn't made new friends yet?"  "Donna is sad because her grandma just died."

            Children are born with the capacity to act kindly toward others. From birth, children's behavior indicates their ability to respond kindly and compassionately. However, adults play an important role in whether or not children continue to act in kind and caring ways. If we are warm and supportive, and set reasonable standards of behavior and consistently enforce them, we are more likely to encourage kind and compassionate behavior in children. And, by encouraging children to be kind, we can find opportunities to talk about the consequences of their behavior for others and to express appreciation for their kindness.




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