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When you want to help your child improve in spelling, reading, or math, what steps do you take? You probably spend time explaining, demonstrating the skill, and helping your child practice.
The same process can apply to teaching skills like caring and kindness. Just like academic skills, social-emotional skills such as empathy can be taught and cultivated through modeling and practice.
Not only do we want our children to be kind and caring individuals, but helping others also leads to increased self-esteem and well-being. Helpful acts are also linked to a sense of belonging, gratitude, and inner peace.
“People who engage in kind acts become happier over time.”
- Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at the University of California
By doing helpful activities that make a difference at home, in your community, and even globally, you can instill a caring mindset in your child.
Start by Practicing Empathy
Before you engage your child in caring activities, work on teaching the skill of empathy. This will make the activities more meaningful for your child, and participation will come from the heart—not because Mom or Dad said so.
1. Model empathy in your interactions with your children and others.
Let’s say your child is whining because she wasn’t ready to leave her friend’s house yet. Instead of immediately snapping, “Stop whining!” try taking a few deep breaths, gaining your composure, and practicing empathy with a statement like, “You seem disappointed. I know it’s hard to leave when you’re having so much fun.” (As a bonus, empathy may stop the whining much faster than responding with anger or frustration!)
If someone cuts you off in traffic, instead of saying something angry, practice empathy by attributing positive intent. “Wow, he’s in a hurry. Maybe he has something really important to do.”
As your children observe your empathy toward others, they will begin to mirror it.2. Directly teach your children empathy.
This is most effective when done in context. For instance, let’s say one of your children pushes the other. Before imposing a consequence, you can take a moment to teach empathy.
“See her face? What do you think your sister is thinking right now? Her face is saying that she didn’t like that. Instead of pushing, say excuse me next time.”
Help your children consider the emotions of others with questions like:
- “What do you think she’s upset about?”
- “How would you feel if that happened to you?”
- “Could he be feeling left out or lonely?”
Following these steps will develop your child’s ability to consider the feelings of others—and how these feelings are affected by her actions.
Our Three Seas Conversation Cards are a wonderful way to will spark fun (and important) discussions about growth mindset, kindness, resilience, gratitude. They are a perfect way to get kids talking, noticing and listening.
Read Books That Teach Kindness
In your efforts to teach empathy, caring, and kindness, you can also read relevant storybooks to your children, like the following:
- Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud - This book aims to teach children that your actions affect others. It also demonstrates that it feels good to “fill the buckets” of others with kindness and love.
- Listening with My Heart by Gabi Garcia - In this story, children learn that it’s not only important to show compassion to others, but to themselves as well. After reading, talk to your children about ways they can show kindness to themselves in difficult moments.
- Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli - When Mr. Hatch, a quiet man who keeps to himself, receives a note saying, “Somebody loves you, Mr. Hatch,” he shares the gift with others. His actions inspire kindness in those around him, teaching children the importance and impact of compassion.
After reading these books, talk to your children about the message of each story and how they can apply these concepts to their own lives.
Ask questions like, “What are some things we can do to be kind to others?” “Do we know anyone that might need a little extra kindness and love?”
For more storybook recommendations, browse our complete list of 29 Books and Activities That Teach Kindness to Children, conveniently sorted by age.
You can also choose a title from our top growth mindset books for children and adults available in our Growth Mindset Printables Kit. We’ve curated a list of books for all ages, covering a variety of topics.….
Making a Difference at Home
Once you’ve built a foundational understanding of empathy, start small by helping your child find ways to make a difference at home.
This may include small tasks to help around the house, but you should also emphasize social skills like saying please and thank you, sharing with siblings, and recognizing when others may be having a tough day.
Author, educator, and expert in developmental psychology Dr. Becky Bailey recommends having a “We Care Center” in the home.
Fill a box or case with items that children can use to symbolically offer empathy to others. These may include stuffed animals, tissues, Band-Aids, etc. A child can offer tissues or a stuffed animal to family members who seem upset (or have a cold), a Band-Aid when someone gets a boo-boo, and so on. This helps children learn to recognize the emotional states of others and offer a helpful gesture. It also teaches them that being kind to others can give you a warm, fuzzy feeling.
Continue encouraging your child to make a difference at home by regularly asking family members questions like, “How are you feeling?” or, “Is there anything I can do to help?”
Your children will begin asking the same questions.
Print out the Kindness Tracker available in our New Year Goal-Setting Kit for ages 11 and up. Your child can check off or color in a section each time he/she performs and act of kindness. This visual can help kids see that their actions make a difference.
Making a Difference in the Community
As your child masters making a difference and offering empathy in the home, you may expand your focus outward to the community with activities like the following:
- Visit a “grandfriend” at a local nursing home or spend time with an elderly neighbor.
- Make Valentine’s for senior citizens.
- Fill backpacks with school supplies for local children in need. Many organizations, such as the YMCA, collect these. Alternatively, you can get in touch with a local school and ask about donating the backpacks directly.
- Plant a vegetable garden and offer extra produce for free to families in need, new parents, or hunger centers.
- Pick up litter.
- Donate clothing, toys, or food.
- Welcome new neighbors with cookies, brownies, or other small gifts.
- Similarly, make treats and deliver them to your local police or fire station. You can also donate gently used stuffed animals to be given to children in emergencies.
- Help a sick or elderly neighbor with tasks like grocery shopping, watering plants, cooking meals, etc.
- Save spare change throughout the year. At the end of the year, donate the money to a local charity.
- Volunteer as a family at a local animal shelter, soup kitchen, or library.
- Practice random acts of kindness around the neighborhood. At dinner, ask each family member to share one kind thing they did that day.
Our New Year Goal-Setting Kit (ages 4-10) includes a printable list of 30 Ways to Make a Difference and a family goal-setting plan. This is a great family activity to do to build connections while serving your community.
Making a Difference Globally
Draw your child’s attention to the fact that they are making a difference in the community. Talk about the impact of their helpful actions and how good it feels to help others. Then, facilitate activities that make an impact on a more global scale, like the following:
Research charitable organizations that your family can support. Talk to your children about how the donations will be used and the people that you’ll help.
- Depending on the ages of your children, they can also raise money or host a fundraiser for a charity they’d like to support.
- Send holiday cards or thank you letters to the military.
- Older children can write letters to elected officials about causes they believe in.
- Donate necessary items to places affected by natural disasters.
You and your child can read more about how people are making a difference around the world in the Big Life Journal. Our inspiring stories will pave the way for conversations with your child and help her understand that ANYONE can make a difference with a dream and grit.
Kindness and caring can be taught with such simple steps as modeling, reading and discussing stories, and contributing to your community as a family. In addition, these activities will help your family create cherished memories that will bring you closer.
Instilling empathy will serve your child for a lifetime, and these activities also empower your children with the understanding that they can make a difference in the world.