Many children play well with other children most of the time, but occasionally can be rather mean to their friends (or siblings).  They often listen politely when their parents talk about to them about treating others well, but parents aren’t sure sometimes that their lessons are sinking in.  It is hard for parents to see their child acting unkindly, even when they recognize that he is not alone in this tendency. Here are some ways that parents can encourage children to be kind to others.

The wisdom of Sirius Black: At one point in the best-selling Harry Potter novel series, Harry, who certainly tries his best to do right, finds himself experiencing many of the angers and hatreds associated with Lord Voldemort, the representative of pure evil. Worried that he will become evil himself, Harry turns to Sirius Black, his godfather and mentor. Sirius tells Harry that everyone has both destructive and constructive thoughts inside. Harry will be defined not by his thoughts and impulses, but by the feelings and impulses he expresses.

Following Sirius’ counsel would be a wise thing. Children will have their reasons to want revenge, wish to exclude or mock someone, or be drawn to any of the various unseemly things that school age children may want to do. Parents will help their children if they do not question their right to have these feelings, but rather question their right to express them just because they have them. We recommend that parents draw the moral lines around action rather than around inner reactions. If parents feel that their child’s inner reactions are excessive or problematic in any way, however, they could also gently encourage a discussion about these reactions. Children who can accept their dark side will be in the strongest position to follow their moral compass and find ways to be respectful even when feeling drawn in different directions.

Treating children respectfully: Children are more likely to treat others with kindness and respect when they have been treated this way by those who matter most to them: their parents. Keeping the long view in mind, parents’ consistent respectful and kind responses to their children will soak in. Here are some ways in which parents can show kindness and respect: 

  • Discipline without using shame, embarrassment, corporal punishment or excessive fear.
  • Be consistently honest.
  • Avoid laughing at children or finding them cute when they are not trying to be funny or cute.
  • Avoid talking in front of a child about matters they cannot understand or should not be hearing.
  • Express angry feelings toward the child in a constructive way that does not convey retaliation.

While it is not possible for parents to treat their children respectfully all of the time, aspiring to reach these goals will have its rewards.

Treating others respectfully: Children also will absorb the ways their parents treat others. They will know whether their parents treat each other with kindness and how they treat others. It matters if a parent is unpleasant with a telemarketer, calls players “jerks” just because they are on the team that defeated a favorite team, or badmouths certain relatives.

It isn’t that criticisms shouldn’t be voiced. What is important is whether criticisms and complaints are respectfully expressed, or if they are expressed with derision, denigration, and without some compassion. It is difficult to expect respect from a child who is striving to be like his admired mother and father if they do not practice what they preach.

Encouraging empathy: Children also will be inspired to act kindly when they feel connected with the reactions and perspective of another person. It is particularly challenging for children to put themselves in someone else’s shoes when the other child has a different perspective than their own. Some ways parents can support their child’s empathy with others are: 

  • Include in their explanations the emotional basis for actions. For example, if parents are telling their child that he has lost his computer time because he has not cleaned up his room as requested, it would be useful for parents to say that they are frustrated with him, more useful to say they are upset, and most useful to be most specific and say they are angry.
  • Encourage children to think about the emotional basis for their actions and talk through these situations to the extent they will engage in such discussions.
  • Help children think about the reasons for their friends’ actions. Of course, understanding their point of view does not necessarily excuse their actions. They too have the obligation to hold their impulses and feelings to the light of reason and morality. But understanding the actions of others, even if inappropriate, will enable children to humanize them and to become the master rather than the servant of their own reactions.

Children and adults are works in progress when it comes to treating others with kindness and respect. When parents continue to see their children as being on this lifelong trajectory and try not to overreact when they does not meet his or their standard, they are likely be increasingly proud of the person their child is becoming.

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