A simple act or word of kindness can be a light for the soul, so can be a listening ear. From personal experience, the two are not entirely separate. During those playful and harrowing toddler and preschool years, it didn’t take long for me to notice, when my children were acting out with unkind words, gestures, or attitudes, it was often caused by a need for sleep or a need for more attention. It might surprise you to know, it doesn’t change as they grow. Children feel and think deeply, often beyond what they can articulate. It seems simple enough, that if we as parents are kind to our children then our children will naturally be kind in return. But rarely is it that simple. Our tone and words certainly impact our children, but they are also their own persons. They have their own thoughts, feelings, impulses, and perspectives––even the exact moments we share with them are experienced differently. This means some days kindness may trickle off of them like rain, with ease and effortlessness; on other days (or seasons or years), kindness will need to be filled and drawn from them like a well.
Our children have been squabbling more often with one another, and as result, we’ve had many conversations about kindness, about honoring one another with our words and actions. We often encourage our children that learning these skills now will help them learn how to love and treat others kindly outside of our home. Here is a brief list of how we work to cultivate kindness in our home, in case you find the same conversations spinning in yours.
watch and listen / So many things I’ve learned about my children hasn’t arrived through a book, but instead by observing and listening to them. Most children (even into their teens) are not articulate enough to explain their emotion, nor are they aware enough to see connections between thoughts, feelings, and actions. Parenting is a patient process in helping them learn to connect dots. For instance, “I’ve noticed when you feel angry, you do/say ___, which is hurtful to ___. It’s important to recognize and share when you feel angry. Can you think of a better way to tell them/me you’re angry?” If you are struggling with consistent unkindness in your home, look for patterns when it shows. Is it around a specific environment? Person? Activity? Does it happen more often when your children are left to independent activity too long or when they are indoors or with others for too long?
carve out space for more quality time / I noticed very early in parenting, when my toddlers or preschoolers were consistently whining or throwing tantrums, it was was typically a sign they needed more quality time with me. I can assure you, with older children (and teens, I’m expecting), it doesn’t change. Even as an adult, I can act grumpy and unkind when I haven’t taken time for myself. Children want positive, quality time with you, and it needn’t be heavy or deeply conversational either. Watch a favorite film or read a favorite book together, snuggled up and undistracted. Sneak away for an errand and stop for a coffee together. In some instances, life is too complicated or difficult to just sneak away with one child. In that instance, plan time at home to enjoy a treat together while the others are occupied. In our home, I let the other children know when this is happening so there are fewer interruptions. In short, time shared with loving words and physical affection go a long way in teaching kindness.
create tighter boundaries / Sometimes my children simply need tighter boundaries, a little more structure to our day or to be watched a little more closely. Anytime I am trying to redirect behavior, especially in the little years, it is best to set aside a few days to watch them more closely, correct and bless. It helps with my consistency as a parent and also to give immediate feedback when they handle a situation well.
speak to their identity / When I am correcting my children for unkindness (which has sadly been happening more often the last few months), I take a moment also to speak truth to their identity, to who they really are. For instance, I might say, “I know it feels good to speak unkind words when you are hurt or angry, but that is not who you are. You are kind. You are gentle. And as you grow into adulthood, I am here to help support and protect that part of your heart.” Even when I’m correcting them or grounding them or telling no, I try to give a positive blessing so they have a glimpse of why it matters, why they matter. Daniel Siegel notes in the book Brainstorm, “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them become what they are capable of being.” Although I am not perfect and sometimes blow it in this area, I aim for my own corrective words to be delivered kindly, elevating them to see beyond the moment at hand but who they are capable of becoming.
practice kindness / Most of us learn best through practice, and one of the best ways to help cultivate kindness is through giving them opportunity. This might be as simple as a handwritten note or sharing a baked good or bunch of flowers with someone. Also consider volunteering regularly somewhere together. Working together for common good always builds character, and tends to also cultivate gratitude and kindness.
seek help / I am not a medical or psychological professional, I am simply sharing what I have learned through my effort and education as a parent and person. If you feel these tactics are out of reach for you or your child, or if your child is destructive to him/herself or others, please consider seeking help. There are so many wonderful ways to to help children through play and art therapy, and there are plenty of professionals wanting to help mothers and fathers, too. There’s no shame in ever asking for professional help.