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Developing kindness in preschoolers: Here's what to know

Children develop compassion through acts of caring and kindness towards others.
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When children are kind and compassionate, they are more tolerant and more aware of the suffering of others, and they are better able to rejoice in other people’s successes. Children develop compassion through acts of caring and kindness towards others, and as they grow, it can guide their actions and behaviors in positive ways. Being a caring and compassionate role model is the best method for teaching your children about kindness, and setting a good example is key to getting them to apply these values to their relationships and interactions.

The first step in kindness for a young child is helping. Maurice Elias, director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, recommends that you provide your child with opportunities to be helpful around the house in order to teach kindness. For example, you may ask them to take on small responsibilities during the morning routine, like packing snacks or getting dressed, or suggest that they help with cleaning up or setting the table for dinner time. You can also ask your children to help siblings or grandparents. Elias says that these are actions that bring about strong positive feelings in young children (and older ones, when they are not being “ordered” to help), which can result in their wanting to volunteer to help others -- a strong example of kindness in action. Another way to show your child the value of kindness is to bring him along when you’re taking a meal to a noncontagious sick relative or neighbor, or let her help you get a bag of clothes or canned goods together for a local clothing or food drive. You may also want to volunteer together at a food bank during the holidays or gather items from family members to donate to a charity in your area. While you are doing this, explain that sometimes people just need a little extra help and that being kind can make a big difference in the lives of others in need.

Weave lessons of kindness into your daily routine. When your children come home from school, ask them to tell you two ways that people were helpful to them during the day. When they tell you, you can respond by saying, “That was so kind of them to do that for you.” Similarly, you can also ask them to provide two ways that they were helpful to others and comment on how kind it was of them to those things for others. You may also want to ask how it made them feel when someone helped, and when they helped others, although you may not get real answers until your child is older. Former Head of School at New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, Tom Hoerr suggests that once your child is four or five years of age, you may want to create a family “kindness chart” on which everyone’s reflections are entered each night. Before or after dinner, each family member can also recount one time during the day when they did something kind for another person. Everyone else in the family can take turns making a supportive and reinforcing comment to the person who has just shared, and you can put a tally mark on the chart to indicate that an act of kindness was done.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Thomas Hoerr, Emeritus Head of School, New City School, and Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab.