Treating Friends with Kindness
Question: My 8-year-old son, Neil, and his friends usually play well together, but occasionally one or another can be rather mean. Neil seems to be about as kind or unkind as his friends are. He politely listens to me when his father and I talk to him about treating his friends well, but I don't know if it is really sinking in. How can I teach him that everyone deserves respect, all the time?
Answer: It is hard to see your child acting unkindly, even when you recognize that he is not alone in this tendency. Here are some ways to 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 wise. Neil will have his reasons to want revenge, wish to exclude or mock someone, or be drawn to any of the various unseemly things that 8-year-old boys may want to do. You will help Neil if you do not question his right to have these feelings, but rather question his right to express them just because he has them. We recommend that you draw the moral lines around action rather than around inner reactions. If you feel that Neil's inner reactions are excessive or problematic in any way, however, you 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, your consistent respectful and kind responses to Neil 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
Neil also will absorb the ways you treat others. He will know whether his 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.
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 you can support your child's empathy with others are:
* Include in your explanations the emotional basis for actions. For example, if you are telling Neil he has lost his computer time because he has not cleaned up his room as requested, it would be useful to say that you are frustrated with him, more useful to say you are upset, and most useful to be most specific and say you are angry.
* Encourage Neil to think about the emotional basis for his actions and talk through these situations to the extent he will engage in such discussions.
* Help Neil think about the reasons for his friends' actions. Of course, understanding their point of view does not necessarily excuse their actions. They, like Neil, 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 Neil to humanize them and to become the master rather than the servant of his own reactions.
Children and adults are works in progress when it comes to treating others with kindness and respect. Continue to see Neil as being on this lifelong trajectory, try not to overreact when he does not meet his or your standard, and you will likely be increasingly proud of the person he is becoming.
The Lucy Daniels Center for Early Childhood is a nonprofit agency that promotes the healthy emotional well-being of children and families. The question may be a composite or illustration of parents' questions. To submit a question about children's behavior or emotional development, send an e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org marked Ask Lucy Daniels.