Some children will readily show kindness to another child but not a sibling. No matter what, kindness is something that can be learned, so take heart.
Q: My son and daughter are having a very hard time being nice to each other. They bicker and fight constantly. My husband and I are at our wit's end. How can I teach our kids to be kind?
A: You’re not alone. Just about every parent with more than one child has experienced the “Clash of the Siblings” at one point or another, and brothers and sisters, young and old, will act in ways that can seem quite unloving.
The fact is, some children are more sensitive to the feelings of others and kindness seems to be a part of their make-up, while for others kindness isn’t quite as natural. Some children will readily show kindness to another child but not a sibling. No matter which “kindness profile” fits your children best, kindness is something that can be learned, so take heart.
There are a number of things kids need to grasp and develop for kindness to become more of a natural response — empathy, love, respect, limits, forgiveness, patience, and self-control. But one huge piece of the puzzle is parental modeling. Do you and your husband exemplify kindness to your children on a daily basis? How do you act toward someone who frustrates or offends you? How do you treat your spouse or your in-laws when they aren’t there?
Fortunately, developing kindness is not about attaining perfection but cultivating genuine care for others. So if you make a mistake now and then, don’t beat yourself up. Just own up to your error and move on.
Take advantage of life’s unexpected opportunities to help your children figure out how to handle their own perceptions and emotions. One way I teach my own kids the art of kindness when they aren’t getting along very well is to help them regain sight of the other person’s thoughts and feelings. I might ask something like, “What do you think it’s like to be playing with you right now? Would you want to play with you?” Directing a child’s attention to the feelings of others is a great way to guide them toward kind behaviors and attitudes.
Emotions and selfishness can certainly derail self-control, which, when not exercised properly, can get in the way of kindness. Other factors that can have an impact on self-control include maturity, stress, tiredness, and hunger. Teach your kids to be mindful of these things so they can manage them (“I’m tired, but that doesn’t mean I have to snap at people”). Help your kids get the rest and proper nutrition they need, and give them tools to manage other factors like stress.
The best way to become good at anything is to practice. Involve your kids in performing random acts of kindness for someone in your neighborhood, or providing food for a homeless person. Once kids are tasked with creative ways to be kind, you’ll be surprised how much they already know about kindness. The idea is to transform single acts of compassion and benevolence into lives of kindness.
By the way, by teaching your kids kindness you help them become problem solvers and healthy conflict resolvers. These skills will benefit them all throughout life.