Everyday Conversation That Teaches Kindness

Children are born with the tools necessary to develop empathy and act in kindness. For instance, they are hardwired from birth with mirror neurons in the brain. Mirror neurons “fire” when observing another person engage in some activity. For example, see someone making a sad face in response to an observable cause and mirror neurons “mirror” the observation. Or, in a more visible example, when a toddler witnesses a peer crying at daycare, they often begin to cry as well. 

In other words, children are born with the tools needed to develop empathy and act in kindness. The real question is: how can we, as parents, nurture that empathy? How can we, as parents, help them translate empathy into compassion and kindness? Sometimes all we need to do is verbally guide our children into a greater understanding of their emotions and how to act on them. We can do that in several ways. Let me give you a few examples.

Point out the feelings of other people and ways in which your child can respond to the people experiencing those feelings.

  • You and your toddler are at the park when a friend of your toddler falls and starts to cry. You might say to your child, “Your friend is crying because they got hurt. It might have scared them to fall. Maybe you can ask them if they’re alright.”
  • You are watching a football game with your child. Your child has friends on both teams. When the game ends, the winners begin to jump up and down in celebration. You could simply say, “Wow. They are really happy. How can we help your friend celebrate?” And, as you see the disheartened look on the losing team’s face, you might add, “Your friend is disappointed to lose a game. Maybe we can cheer him up by talking about the good plays they ran.”
  • Your spouse walks through the door after a long day of work and looks especially tired.  They drop their bags and walk into the bedroom and plop onto the bed. You say to your child, “Your mom (dad) looks really tired today. They’ve had a long day at work. I’ll let them know they can rest, and you and I will get dinner read while they do.”

Engage in pretend play. Pretend play is a great way to nurture empathy and kindness. For instance, you can prompt your child to consider the emotions and actions of the character they portray in pretend play. 

  • “I wonder what Barbie feels like when she gets a gift from Ken?”
  • “Those firemen have an exciting job, don’t they? I wonder what they feel like while fighting a fire? How do you think they feel after the put the fire out?”
  • “Can you imagine what that cat feels like when he’s stuck in a tree?”

You can also nurture empathy and promote kindness while reading to your child.

  • Before you turn the page of a children’s book ask, “What do you think will happen next?”
  • Point out the expression on the characters’ faces in picture books and label those expressions. “Look how happy he looks when others are kind to him.” “Look at that big smile after he shared….” “Oh my, that must be scary. Look how scared he looks.”

Of course, model empathy and kindness.

  • Simple phrases like “Thank you,” “Please,” and “You’re welcome” model kindness for your children.
  • Questions such as “Can I help you?” or “What can I do to help?” also model kindness and concern. 
  • Asking “Are you OK?” or saying “Ouch, that looks like it hurt” model empathy.
  • You also model kindness by offering to share or offering to get another family member something to drink while you get your own.

Your children are born with everything they need to develop empathy and kindness. As a parent, you simply nurture that empathy and kindness in your daily interactions with them. You can see from these examples that the opportunities to do so are limitless. And, as you do nurture your children’s empathy and kindness, your whole family will reap the benefits.

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