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We know that children thrive on healthy, positive connections with others. A 2014 study identified quality relationships as one of the strongest predictors of well-being among middle schoolers. Relationships trumped financial resources, neighborhood quality, and even life stress in terms of importance!
Additional research shows that children’s relationships have an enduring impact. Early connections to caring adults and peers mean higher self-worth, achievement and better mental health even in adulthood.
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So how can parents create the conditions for supporting these vital connections?
Know that positive relationships don’t just happen by accident. Like most things, they take intention and practice!
Read on for some simple steps to help children cultivate this crucial skill, and gain a lifetime of benefits.
1. Model Respect
Respect is different from some of the other things we teach children.
“It’s not something we can tell our children how to do. The only way to teach this virtue is to show. When we parent respectfully, our children will grow with a solid foundation of knowing what respect looks like, how important it is, and subsequently how to respect others (including us!).”
-Nicole Dent, parenting writer
Start by asking your children, “What does respect mean to you?” Point out the ways you work to show them respect by listening, caring about their feelings, and staying calm when you’re upset.
Other ideas include:
- Create a list of respectful behaviors (friendly words, compliments, honesty, good manners) and display in a visible spot
- Discuss how respectful relating looks, sounds, and feels
- Define unhealthy or disrespectful relationships (imbalance of power, rude words, excluding others, physical aggression)
- Show respect for your community and the environment by picking up trash, planting a garden, or championing a cause you care about
Be sure to check out the Kindness & Community Kit for activities to help spark ideas for contributing to your community and the world.
2. Practice Mindful Speech
There is power in pausing before we speak. When children choose words that help rather than harm, positive relationships take root.
“Mindfulness makes it possible to recognize what we are about to say before we say it, and thus offers us the freedom to choose when to speak, what to say, and how to say it.”
-Beth Roth, therapist
A simple way to practice mindful speech is the “Three Gates” technique. Before we speak, our words must pass through three gates (or barriers):
- Is it true?
- Is it helpful?
- Is it kind?
You might say: “Whenever we speak, we have a choice about what to say. If we stop for a moment, we can be sure to choose words more carefully. We already know we should tell the truth. But that’s not the only important thing. Before we speak, we can also think about if our words are going to be helpful and kind to the other person.”
- Asking, “Can you think of something you’ve said that seemed true but that felt kind of mean or bad to say?” (Answers might include: sharing gossip, pointing out something unkind to someone, or telling a friend something mean another person said about them)
- Using the “Three Gates” questions to examine past scenarios and how the outcome may have changed using all three questions
- Brainstorming ways the “Three Gates” could help build strong relationships
As parents, we can practice mindful speech simply by asking fewer questions of our children. Choosing our words carefully (“I’m so glad you’re home” versus “How was school today?” or “Let’s take a deep breath together” versus “Why are you crying?”) can make the difference between feeling like they’re on a firing line and feeling supported. The Positivity & Connection Kit contains a few mindfulness activities, such as My Mindfulness Bingo and 5 Fun Mindfulness Activities for Children.
3. Disagree Respectfully
Knowing how to assert oneself respectfully during conflict is key. In tricky moments, children can learn to disagree in ways that even strengthen the relationship!
Consider these options:
- Allow children to see parental disagreements and their resolution (when appropriate)
- Model peaceful communication during real-life struggles (“I’m taking a deep breath right now because I was about to say something that was not helpful or kind.”)
- Create a menu of choices for disagreements such as using an ‘I’ Message, walking away, compromising or asking an adult for help
- Ask your child: “Do you want to be right or do you want to be friends?” or “What’s most important to you in this situation?”
Children may also just need the words with which to disagree politely. You can suggest starting sentences with, “Here’s what I think...” or “I disagree, but I’d like to hear more….” In this way, deeper levels of understanding and engagement can occur.
Finally, remind children that both people in an argument can be correct--they just have differing viewpoints. Books like “The Wolf’s Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood” by Toby Forward or “They All Saw a Cat” by Brendan Wenzel are good places to start the discussion on perspective-taking.
4. Embrace Diversity
As global migration increases, so does diversity in schools (and opportunities for open-mindedness). Embracing differences can be a challenge, but teaching children to treat everyone with respect will serve them well in life.
Start by discussing what we gain when we learn about people who are different from us. Then brainstorm a list of ways we can connect with and appreciate other cultures.
- Creating opportunities to play/interact with peers from different backgrounds
- Visiting local cultural sites or trying foods from other cultures
- Researching inspirational activist children from around the world
- Reading books that celebrate diversity (Same, Same But Different by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw, All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman or Chocolate Milk, Por Favor by Maria Dismondy)
And remember a “strengths-based” perspective when discussing those who are different from your child.
This perspective focuses on the positive characteristics of a person and her abilities, what that person is able to do or does (as compared to what he cannot) and how differences make our world a better place.
-Christy Tirrell-Corbin, PhD
Finally, check out 7 Key Steps to Raising Inclusive Kids for many more awesome ideas!
5. Teach Empathy
Empathy is a key ingredient in positive relationships--it deepens sensitivity and attachment to others. While empathy develops naturally, it can also be cultivated through a variety of activities.
"Empathy is probably the greatest single gift of our species. We wouldn't have been able to survive without creating relationships and groups that could function together."
-Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D. and author of Born for Love
Simple strategies include:
- Identify their emotions (“Your face looks red and your hands are clenched. It looks like you might feel mad”) and point out your own
- Hold family meetings to discuss conflicts, and encourage each member to take the other’s perspective
- Write notes of gratitude (“What would you like to hear if you’d spent time finding this awesome gift for someone/helped someone with a tough project/did a kind thing for a friend?”)
Be sure to check out our Gratitude Kit which includes a variety of activities to help children practice being thankful and express gratitude.
Sometimes despite our best efforts, our child still has difficulty taking another’s perspective or “walking in their shoes.” When this happens, simply review the uncaring behavior and how it impacted the other person. When emotions have settled, discuss how the hurt can be healed and begin moving forward.