By Ray Lontoc
Judging others seems to be an activity practised all too frequently, by both adults and children. It’s easy to comment negatively about other people rather than empathize with their situation, but remember that children often look to their parents as the example of how to treat others, especially those who may be perceived to be “difficult” or have special needs. You influence how your child will understand diversity, and that understanding determines how they will interact with others, including those who are different.
Help your child learn to respect and be kind to others by modelling positive social behaviour, and follow these tips to encourage kindness in your kids’ lives.
1. Be aware that your kids model their behaviour on yours
Teaching kids social skills is usually as easy as modelling the behaviour you would like to see them exhibit. However, your child doesn’t observe and learn only when you ask for their attention; they watch and listen all the time, even when you don’t think they are. When kids hear comments and jokes that belittle persons with disabilities, they assume that this kind of behaviour is appropriate. Do not endorse disrespect, even temporarily. The bottom line is that routine, daily communication serves as a powerful teaching opportunity for your child.
2. Practise empathy
Young children need reminders about trying to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Ask your child to remember to think before saying something about someone, and to take the time to consider how they might feel if someone said it to them. How would your daughter feel if she found out that someone was making fun of her dress, or criticizing her for not doing a math problem fast enough? Would she want someone to praise her for trying, or to put her down for not doing it right? Would your son want someone to compliment him on something he does, or would he want someone to make fun of him? Teaching empathy is a key part of teaching kindness to kids.
3. Talk positively about differences
It’s natural for kids to recognize differences and to try to understand what they observe. Young children typically misinterpret what they see, and need parents to provide clarification with enthusiasm and appreciation. Answer your child’s questions openly, but frame the responses according to your child’s age. Emphasize that a person’s disability is a very small part of the person’s identity. For example, point out that a man in a wheelchair may also be a dad, a professor and an architect. The wheelchair enables the man to move from place to place, and doesn’t minimize his value as a person.
4. Put a positive spin on things
The old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” is a great lesson to teach kids. Teach your child to get into the habit of saying only positive things—the kind of things that will make someone feel good rather than sad or upset, and putting a positive spin on something when they have a negative opinion about it. For example, ask your son what he would say if a friend asked for his opinion about a drawing the friend did and your son didn’t like it. He can practise finding something positive to say about it (“I liked the colours you used,” or “You made a nice, big house” or something similar) to encourage his friend to continue.
5. Boost their feelings vocabulary
Spend a few minutes each day pointing out different expressions and giving them a name—happy, sad, mad, angry.
You can ask your child to help make “feelings flash cards” by cutting out pictures of faces from magazines and gluing them to index cards. As your child gets older, the emotions can get more nuanced—surprise, shyness, confusion, irritation—and you can add body language to the facial gestures. When you read books together, encourage your child to name the emotions of the different characters.
6. Teach basic rules of politeness
Good manners are a great way for your child to show caring and respect for others. “Please” and “thank you” are phrases children should use automatically. Explain that you are more inclined to hand over their sandwich when they ask for it politely, and that you don’t like it when they order you around. Even if these phrases sound rote at times, they teach kids how important it is to treat others with respect. Of course, being polite yourself is worth a thousand rules and explanations. Say “please” and “thank you” to your child and to others whenever it’s called for, and they will learn that these phrases are part of normal communication, both at home and in public.
7. Be aware of what they’re watching on TV or the internet
It can be easy to simply turn on the television and walk away, but being aware of the kind of programming your child watches is very important. This is especially true online, where the dangers of cyberbullying is a new phenomenon. Being vigilant about what your child sees and reads, and having a discussion about any issues that arise, can help to neuter the situation before it turns into a learned behaviour.
8. Help them to deal with bullying
Establish and periodically review with your child the basics of what to do if they encounter hurtful behaviour, whether directed toward them or someone else. Tell them to alert a teacher right away if they see bullying behaviour. (Explain that this is not tattling—which is reporting something to the teacher just to get someone in trouble—but is an important way to stop someone from getting hurt.)
9. Allow them to self-discover
Let your child discover the joy of being kind, just as you can give them a lifelong love of reading if you give them space to develop and discover reading on their own. Strangers will usually be unabashed at accepting an act of kindness if it comes from a child, and the resulting compliments from others will only reinforce this type of behaviour.
10. Volunteer with them
Volunteering teaches compassion, empathy, tolerance, gratitude and community responsibility. And children who volunteer are more likely to continue doing so as adults. Many volunteer jobs are perfect for families with little ones. First, decide whether you’re interested in a onetime project (collecting children’s books and donating them to a hospital, for instance) or a longer-term commitment, then call the appropriate organization to ask how you can help.
Ray Lontoc is a graduate of the Ryerson Publishing program, was an HR specialist for over five years, and has tutored children from grades 1-9.