Building Empathy, Respect and Kindness in Kids
Expert tips for parents as their children navigate the social and emotional journey of childhood.
Raising children involves more complexity; more stress and anxiety; and more need for trust, communication, and collaborative partnerships than anything else we do in our lives. During the many ups and downs and twists and turns of the parenting journey, it is important to remember that building empathy, respect and kindness in our children from the earliest ages is just as important as reading acquisition, math problem-solving and academic skill-building.
Based on the many lessons we’ve both learned in our times as teachers and school leaders, we offer these three considerations for parents as their children navigate the social and emotional journey of childhood and adolescence.
1. The Marathon vs. the Sprint — and Remembering the Finish Line
One big difference between adults and children involves perspective. Most of the time, we adults have it, while it’s something naturally missing in children. A friendship changes suddenly, a “first love” concludes painfully, someone behaves thoughtlessly or even cruelly — the accumulation of all of those common, difficult moments of childhood helped give us our mature, big-picture perspective as adults. However, for our children first encountering these crises, there’s often no careful consideration of the future or any bigger picture; there is simply only an acute awareness of the painful present.
In these moments — when those we love most in this world are inconsolable, devastated or hopeless, and we are sorely tempted to abandon our hard-earned, big-picture, adult perspective — we must remind ourselves that parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. Doing everything possible to ensure a child is happy every moment of his/her life is as unrealistic for us as it is detrimental to his/her future. Our response to our child’s moments of heartbreak or sadness ought to be loving and compassionate, but we must remain ever-mindful that our ultimate parenting “finish line” comes only when our child becomes an adult who can independently, joyfully and resiliently lead a meaningful life with purpose and love. That ought to be our chief goal as parents, not immediately fixing each unhappy moment.
2. Question Marks Are Often Better Than Periods and Exclamation Points
During those inevitable moments of heartbreak or sadness, how do we parents respond? One option employed by some parents is to attempt to impose the missing perspective on the perspective-less child: “Sweetheart, calm down. I’m sure they didn’t mean it,” or “This happens to lots of other people, too,” or “It’s not a big deal … not something to get so upset over.” On the other end of the spectrum, some parents may immediately adopt or even amplify the child’s point of view: “I can’t believe [he/she] did that! That is not acceptable, and I’m calling [his/her parents/the school] right now to address this immediately!”
Rather than either of these approaches, often the best response to children during difficult moments involves lots of open questions that seek to discern both facts and feelings. “What, exactly, did [he/she] say or do?” “What happened beforehand and afterward?” “Did you see or hear this yourself, or did you learn about it from someone else?” “Why do you think it happened?” “Do other people … teachers or friends … know what happened, and what do they seem to think about it?” “What do you think ought to happen about this?” “What would make you feel better about this situation?” Questions show you care and are not dismissive. They may help your child take necessary steps to process and to better understand what is upsetting them, and they may even begin to help you both discern a positive path forward.
3. Practice Makes Permanent
Unlike, say, math — where the school introduces concepts and parents reinforce them at home — empathy, respect and kindness are best learned when intentionally instilled at home and then vigorously reinforced at school. Parents and schools, alike, should give children plenty of opportunities to consider different perspectives, to understand how reasonable people can disagree, to imagine what it must be like to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” and to help and to serve others. And just as it’s best to thoroughly practice any academic concept long before it shows up on the test, it’s far easier to routinely practice and reflect on empathy, respect and kindness before their limits are tested in the inevitable difficult social and emotional moments of childhood and adolescence.
We all hear about the devastating ramifications of bullying, and it is not to be taken lightly. However, real bullying is a very specific and narrowly-defined type of behavior involving intentional cruelty where the chief purpose is to create an imbalance of power. We must be cautious not to equate bullying with all unkind behavior, as bullying requires a very specific response by adults. A far more common reason for unkind behavior among children involves a failure of empathy — an offense is given and then the aggrieved victim immediately attributes the worst motives to the offender and responds in kind. Allies get involved, tears might be shed, meanness and retributions continue and can escalate without intervention. A child who has regularly practiced empathy — and for whom its value has been intentionally reinforced both at home and at school — is far more likely to better navigate such difficult moments, to help diffuse them and to help his/her friends navigate such moments, too.
About the only thing more complicated than navigating the social and emotional experiences of childhood is being a parent who must lovingly help his/her child through all of those moments. Engaging with other parents, partnering with teachers and schools, and exchanging ideas like those we’ve shared in this blog can all help us on our journey. For more extensive discussion — and, frankly, far more wisdom than either of us can offer — we encourage you to join us as St. Timothy’s School and The Raleigh School co-sponsor an evening with bestselling author and award-winning psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson at 7 p.m. on Feb. 6 when he shares "Best Friends/Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children." This event will be held at The Raleigh School and is free and open to the public. (Register here.)
Tim Tinnesz is a father to three children and Head of School at St. Timothy’s School. St. Timothy’s is an Episcopal preparatory school for pre-K through grade 8 that emphasizes both challenging academics and a commitment to making a positive difference in our community and world.
Bud Lichtenstein is a father to two adult sons and Head of School at The Raleigh School. The Raleigh School is a cooperative community of children, parents and teachers from preschool through grade 5 that fosters a love of learning in an atmosphere of challenge, inquiry and respect.