Ask Laura: How to teach kids to be kind

Dear Laura,

We have made new friends with parents from my preschooler’s school but I feel like I have missed some parenting memo on teaching kids to be kind. They all say they practice “peaceful parenting”. Which I do, to some degree, try to do too (not raising my voice often, no shaming etc) but I am very firm with my children when it comes to hurting other people either physically or with words. I have had zero tolerance to this from day one and my boys never hurt each other or anyone else physically and very rarely say anything mean either (can’t take total credit for this however as I think they have naturally gentle natures).

All our new friends seem to have complete tolerance for it with their kids and they never reprimand them. We went to a 5th birthday party yesterday and watched the birthday boy stomp as hard as he could on his 3 year old’s brothers’ stomach, push and scream at another boy that he couldn’t play because he didn’t like him anymore (other boy in tears), called my son names and told him he could never come to his party again because my son asked to have a turn on the swing he was on and say “bye dork” when we left. All the mum did the entire time was implore to the boy using nothing but his name in a very soft voice. Also the birthday boy’s cousin punched my 2 year old in the face.

It had been suggested to me that this is life and I need to teach my kids to be tougher and fight back.

I am quite distressed and feel like I don’t know how to handle this. I would like to teach my kids to be kind to others but also resilient. What am I missing?! I feel hopeless!

From Monica


Hi Monica,

We all want our children to be kind, and to grow up to be even kinder. And at the end of the day, children are not born simply good or bad.  Kindness isn’t taught, it’s learned. And in order for kids to learn how to be kind, they have to experience it at home.

In stark contrast to what you are going through, I was at a play centre recently with my son and I saw a dad yelling and abusing his own 2 year old son when he hit another kid. And it wasn’t just a passing, slightly louder than normal moment. It was so loud the whole centre stopped as it echoed around the building. It was scary and very confronting it actually made me want to cry a little bit. So I feel like we are sitting at 2 extremes here right now. Zero discipline and then abusive discipline. And as much as I understand wanting to teach your kids a lesson if they do something wrong, there is zero excuse for that kind of abusive behaviour towards children.

Interestingly, the Latin origin of the word discipline is ‘to teach’. Disciplining your child means teaching them responsible behaviour and self-control. They need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood.

I recently read an article with parenting expert Robin Berman, M.D. on the topic — her book “Permission to Parent” has been turned to for advice on everything from narcissism to the misguided desire of wanting our kids to be happy. According to Berman, kindness isn’t something we’re born with—it’s something we’re taught. And that doesn’t mean lectures or yelling. It’s part of day-to-day life: how you answer your child’s questions, how you solve conflict at the park, how you nudge his or her growing capacity to understand and think about other people. Below is part of the interview that I found extremely useful, with her advice for focusing kids (and parents) on what really matters, and consistently parenting for—and with—kindness.

Laura xx

Raising Kind Kids
by Dr. Robin Berman

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear…
You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
before you are six or seven or eight,
to hate all of the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

These words, written in 1949 by Rodgers and Hammerstein, are still vital and relevant in 2017.

The flip side of “you’ve got to be taught to hate” is, of course, that you have to be taught to love, to be respectful, and to be kind to others. The world needs that kind of teaching now more than ever, but over the last decade, we parents have lost our way. For a Harvard study, 10,000 kids were asked to rank kindness, personal happiness, and achievement in order of importance. Not only did they rank achievement first, with personal happiness in second, and kindness trailing behind, but they also believed their parents would think achievement trumps all.

Are we focused on the wrong things? Grades and athletic/artistic accomplishments matter, but most of us would agree raising kind kids matters more. If we spend our days drilling math facts and chauffeuring our kids to “enrichment activities,” it begs the question: What are we prioritising most—and why? I sat next to a fabulous woman on a plane who told me she taught both her kids and grandkids compassion with the phrase, “ABK, all the way, every day.” ABK stands for Always Be Kind.

Chances are you’re not raising the next Harvard valedictorian or NBA superstar, yet we are under the delusion that by spending our children’s childhoods on tutors and coaches, we might beat the odds, while we don’t spend enough time on the key qualities that we can foster. There are three meaningful things you can shape as parents: your child’s connection to you, their character, and their ability to act with kindness. But loving kindness is a skill that has to be talked up and practiced. Ask your kids at the dinner table: “What did you do today that was kind?” “What are you grateful for?” That sends a very different message than, “What did you get on your test?”

Are you gossiping at the dinner table? How do we model kindness in our tone and language at home? How do we talk to our spouse, our children, and ourselves? Are we modeling self-compassion?

The School of Love

Home is ideally the school of love. We begin to understand our self-worth by the way we are treated. The tone and language you use in your home, no matter if it’s directed at your partner, your kids, or yourself, becomes the soundtrack in your child’s head. Kids have bionic ears and eyes: They see and hear everything. So phrases like, “bad boy,” or “you’re lazy,” or my all-time least favourite, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” need replacing. In their place, phrases like, “We all make mistakes. What did you learn from it?” “If you could push rewind, what would you do differently next time?” can be game-changing.

The power of mindful words can’t be overstated. Words can inflame or inspire. If, for example, you want to teach your child not to interrupt, you can say, “Wait for the pause. There will be a pause in the conversation.” This is obviously more effective than barking: “Don’t interrupt,” “Be quiet”, or, worse, “Shut up.” Both teach manners, but one approach is more heart-centered and loving. The diplomacy you teach will allow your kids to be heard in the future. It also feeds a gentler narrative in their head.

As Stephen Sondheim wisely warns:
Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell,
What do you leave to your kids when you’re dead?
Only whatever you put in their head.

A Kindness Muscle Short List

• Take a breath before you consult your kids
• Own your mistakes
• Talk up the importance of kindness and character
• Stop caring so much about winning
• Minimize the consumption of digital negativity
• Teach your kids compassion and to look outward, not inward

To read the full story click here

How to discipline your kids without yelling

Laura Ruston

Mum to Harvey. Wife to Dave. Founder of MUMOKI. Art lover, design obsessed, lipstick hoarder.