I was 11 years old at the time, a transplant from the cushioned world of private school to the much bigger and much more diverse halls of Hobby Middle School. It was a tough adjustment, going from being the big fish in the little pond to just a nameless face among hundreds. Since my class at St. Mary’s Hall had been so small—45 total, as opposed to Hobby’s class of about 350—everyone more or less just accepted everyone else. I had not yet been graced with the concept of cliques and the life experience of “fitting in.” Not until sixth grade, anyway.
At Hobby, students were allowed to eat lunch in the cafeteria or a designated area outside. The “cool” girls perched on a stone wall that encircles the courtyard, and the “cool” boys sat at four or so stone picnic tables in the center of the patio. Since they were limited, tables came at a premium. But, being a new kid with no real sense of social strata, I didn’t know this when I sat down at one by myself during the first week of school and began eating my sandwich alone. My quiet solo lunch was interrupted a few minutes later by a band of Tommy Hilfiger-clad boys who squished on either side of me and announced, “Hey, we’re taking over this table now, sooo you’re gonna have to move.”
Those who know me personally will hardly be surprised to hear that my reaction was something along the lines of, “No. I’m staying.” The boys hemmed and hawed and did everything within their power to chase me off, but I remained steadfast in my decision. In fact, I specifically remember saying, “I’m not going anywhere until I’m done with my lunch. After that, I’ll leave, and the table’s yours.”
If this had been a movie, one of the boys would’ve suddenly found my challenging attitude irresistible and asked me to an upcoming dance, and the girls on the wall, who watched this whole scene play out through whispers and chuckles, would’ve jumped down and welcomed me into their clan.
Unfortunately, life isn’t always like the movies.
I ate the rest of my lunch quietly while the boys heckled me and the girls pointed and giggled, and when I was finished, I left, their laughter echoing as I turned my back and exited the patio.
Eventually, I did find my own little circle to pal around with. But every day that fall, I sat alone in a section of the courtyard during lunch, desperately wishing for a friend, craving compassion and kindness, hoping that someone would hop down from that wall and give me a chance.
And before anyone calls to cue the tiny violins, let me clarify: I am well aware that this is not a tragic or unique tale. I’m sure many—if not most—of us have at least one painful memory of a time when our ego was bruised by classmates at the Age of Meanness known as middle school. My self-esteem was not shattered by this incident, and in fact, later on in high school, I would eventually refer to some of those girls on the wall as friends. Some of them may be reading this post today. I hold absolutely nothing against them.
But now that I’m a mom, I see this situation from a different perspective: the way my own mother must’ve felt when I came home and shared this story after she asked about my day. The Mama Bear in me hopes that my daughter never has to experience that sting of humiliation. She is my baby, after all, and as her mom, I can’t help but want everything to be seamless and easy for her. I hope she never has to be the kid that I was in the courtyard. But, equally important to me is that I raise her not to be a kid on the wall, either—that kindness always trumps “cool,” no matter what anyone else says.
The question is: how? How can we, as parents, raise compassionate kids who understand the value of empathy?
I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m not a parenting expert, and I don’t have a PhD in education or child psychology (or anything, for that matter). I’m just a mom with good intentions.
But that’s the thing about kindness: It doesn’t require degrees or credentials. So you can take my tips with a grain of salt, but raising caring, kind-hearted kids is something I feel should rank extremely high on all of our priority lists; and as with most aspects of parenting, I believe the lessons in compassion begin with us.
That said, here are some great ways that we, as parents, can help foster kindness, compassion, and empathy in our children:
Life isn’t black and white, and neither are emotions. Explain to young kids the differences between “embarrassed” and “angry,” “sad” and “insecure,” etc. Equip kids with the knowledge to identify their own feelings, and how words and actions can affect others’ emotions. After all, how can we expect our kids to understand other people’s feelings if they don’t first comprehend their own?
Create feeling-based scenarios.
Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes doesn’t come naturally to most of us—and little kids are no exception—but as parents, we can help draw attention to others’ emotions by creating feeling-based situations to discuss with our kids. Pause a TV show at the point of conflict and ask your child how he/she thinks the recipient feels and why. While reading books together inquire about the characters’ feelings following a negative/positive experience. Use your child’s interactions with the family pet to show how our actions affect others (e.g., “How do you think the dog feels when you blow in his face like that? I don’t think he likes that, do you?”). Use real-life examples, too. If your child comes home talking about a negative incident with a classmate, ask for the specifics and then acknowledge the feelings on both sides (e.g., “I’m sorry it made you sad when Avery said she didn’t want to play with you on the playground. But how do you think she felt when you refused to share your sandbox toy? Let’s talk about how to handle it differently next time”).
Emphasize similarities, not differences.
Studies show that people are more likely to empathize with those they see as similar to themselves. Children are great at noticing details that adults often overlook, which can make them especially skilled at pointing out differences among themselves and friends. Teach your child to focus on similarities by overtly identifying them, whether they’re concrete (e.g., having a same-aged sibling, living in the same neighborhood, enjoying the same activity, etc.) or situational (the resulting emotions after a familiar experience, such as falling down on a bike, being “left out” by classmates, etc.). The more your child sees he/she has in common with others, the more likely he/she will be to treat them with kindness and compassion.
However, also verbalize to your child that we can still be friends with people who are different from us. My daughter recently returned from a playdate concerned about an antler mount that she’d noticed at her friend’s house. Our family doesn’t hunt, so Harper was worried that perhaps the fact that our friends are avid hunters might be an issue. It was funny and precious, but it was also a teachable moment that allowed me the opportunity to explain that of course our friendship can remain intact even though our families do things differently—we won’t always like the same things as our friends or see things the same way, and that’s totally OK.
Watch what you say.
One of the most important ways that we, as parents, can teach our kids to be kind and compassionate is by watching our language around them—and I don’t necessarily mean that of the four-letter variety. As we all know, children are sponges, and they will absorb the way we evaluate other people. When we describe others as “heavy” or “pretty” or “rich” or [insert superficial adjective here], we are indirectly teaching our kids to judge others by the same criteria. As adults, we do this sometimes without thinking—on the phone with a friend (e.g., “OMG, did you see her crazy-long fingernails?!”) or perhaps in jest with a spouse (e.g., “Can you please change your dirty shirt so you look less like a homeless person?!”)—but we should try to remember that little ears are listening. Simply being conscious of the language we use when discussing others in our children’s presence can go a long way in helping kids to understand that what’s on the inside matters a lot more than someone’s exterior.
Treat others with kindness.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but our children mirror our actions. How we treat people who aren’t in our “circle” is a strong indication of how our children will treat classmates who aren’t in theirs. Provide a good example by showing the smallest kindnesses to strangers, particularly the “faceless” members of society we encounter on a daily basis. Ask a sales clerk how his/her day is going, say “please” and “thank you” to restaurant servers, and make a general effort to maintain a cheerful demeanor when dealing with others. Humanize those with whom your child is unfamiliar by allowing him/her the opportunity to interact as well (e.g., by ordering his own dinner at a restaurant, saying “thank you” when complimented, etc.).
Even if you come across someone with a nasty attitude, resist the urge to mutter something mean-spirited in front of your child. Instead, try saying something like, “That person seemed like they are having a rough day. Maybe they didn’t get enough sleep last night.” This not only teaches kids to give others the benefit of the doubt, it also reemphasizes the idea that when people act rude or spiteful, it usually has a lot more to do with their own personal issues than it does with us.
Allow kids to participate in random acts of generosity.
I was cooking dinner for a friend a few weeks ago when my daughter wandered into the kitchen and asked what I was doing. I explained that my friend had just had a baby and that I was making dinner to deliver to their family. In ever-typical five-year-old fashion, my daughter cocked her head to the side like a puppy and asked, “Why?” My answer was pretty simple: “Because it’s just a nice thing to do, and I know they’ll appreciate it.” Her response? “Oh. Cool. Can I help?”
I don’t pretend to be the most giving person out there—as with everything, I could always do more—but when I do nice things, I make a sincere effort to incorporate Harper into the act. Sometimes she really helps: we’ve cleaned out toys and supplies to donate to needy families, delivered homemade goodies to new neighbors, etc. But even when she’s nothing more than a bystander who merely sits in her car seat or walks in beside me when we’re dropping off something to someone, she’s bearing witness to a good deed—and to me, that can only be a positive thing. After all, as I said in my earlier blog post Teaching Kids to Give Back During the Holidays, “The greatest way to help your child delight in giving back to others is, simply, to be that type of person yourself.”
Empower your child…
Although they may seem like polar opposites, confidence breeds compassion. It takes courage to make a new friend or stick up for the underdog. Allowing your child the freedom to make choices from time to time not only builds confidence but reinforces that his/her opinion is important and valued. Kids who feel respected at home are less likely to seek control and significance by picking on others.
…But keep little egos in check.
Giving your child the freedom to make choices doesn’t mean allowing him/her total control to boss you around. It’s a tricky balance. As the parent of a five-year-old only child, I often have to remind my daughter of her place—that my husband and I are the parents, and she is not the third adult in this household. Kids are amazing and adorable, but they’re incredibly self-centered; and as parents, it’s our job to convey that the world does not, in fact, revolve around them (even though it may sometimes seem that way!). When your child complains that he is “sooo tired of walking” after a long day at SeaWorld or “just sooo hot” while you’re sweating in line for popcorn at the zoo, don’t feel bad about telling him that everyone else is tired/hot/etc. too.
A few nights prior to our venture to Grossology last month, my daughter and I were dining at Alamo Cafe when she spotted a soldier with a prosthetic leg hobbling in on crutches. We talked at length about the man’s leg during dinner, and yet leaving the museum a few days later, the whining about too-tired little legs started almost instantly on our short walk out to the car. My first few attempts at telling Harper to “buck up” were thwarted, so I took a different approach:
“Remember that man that we saw a few nights ago at the restaurant? The soldier with the mechanical leg?” I asked. She seemed puzzled but answered that yes, she remembered. “Do you think that man would be complaining about walking out to the car on this beautiful day?” Harper looked down at the asphalt and admitted, “No.” I crouched down to her level, looked her in the eye, and said, “Every time you complain about your legs being too tired to walk somewhere, I want you to try to remember that man and how he probably would love to be able to do the very thing you are complaining about right now.” This really hit home with her, not only because it got her mind off of the so-called “problem,” but more importantly, because she was forced to think about things from someone else’s perspective.
Expect contributions without reward.
A great way to help kids focus less on themselves and more on others is to build this mentality into your family dynamic. Individuals make up families, yes, but your family as a whole is a working unit, and everyone should be expected to contribute to it. Don’t do away with rewards for completing certain household chores, but do leave a few tasks off the chore/reward list, especially those that involve giving back to the whole family. At our house, Harper is expected to help me feed our dog his dinner and assist in setting the table every night. She doesn’t receive a $1 bill for this; she gets a “thank you for helping.” Expecting children to contribute without a reward not only makes the concept of helping habitual, it helps kids to understand that positive actions aren’t always met with incentives, nor should they be. Doing the right thing stands enough on its own.
Explain and apologize when you make a mistake.
Try as we may to be awesome parents, one thing is certain: We all have bad days. Sometimes really bad days. I recently experienced one of these while my husband was overseas on a 15-day business trip to India. It was Day #13 of my two-week venture in solo parenting, and absolutely nothing had gone right from the minute I’d opened my eyes that morning. This, coupled with PMS and a daughter who had spent the day challenging my patience and by that point had been dragging out bedtime for over an hour, did not set the stage for a good evening. On my fifth trek back upstairs to see what in the world my child could possibly want, I lost it. I yelled. I cried. I succumbed to my emotions. It was not my finest moment.
The next morning, I sat Harper down in my lap, sincerely apologized, and took the time to explain what was really wrong using honest language that she could understand. I told her that I was sorry I’d behaved so poorly the night before, that I was just really tired and missed her dad very much, and that frankly, being the only parent when you’re used to having a partner is really hard—that all of the responsibilities rest on me when I don’t have her dad here to help, and that sometimes it can be a little stressful/overwhelming, even though I’m a grown-up. Things sailed a lot more smoothly during my husband’s next business trip later that month, and when I could tell Harper was making a concerted effort to help with little things, I thanked her. She replied, “You’re welcome, Mama. It’s hard for you being the only parent when Daddy’s not here, so I just wanted to make it easier.” Weeks later, she’d remembered.
We’re not always going to be the awesome parents we strive to be. We’re going to royally screw up from time to time. The important thing is that when we fail, we acknowledge it, apologize for our actions, and help our kids try to understand where we’re coming from—not in an effort to rationalize our mistakes, but so that our children know how to ask for compassion from others when they mess up themselves, and how to offer it.
I doubt any of us are naive enough to think that kids will always be kind. We have no control over other people’s children. But we do have the power to raise our kids to treat others kindly, even those who don’t do the same in return. And maybe, just maybe, if we all vowed to make this a priority, we’d see fewer kids sitting alone in the courtyard and fewer kids snickering on the wall.
What are some of your parenting strategies for teaching your kids to be kind?