When I was ten, we moved from Brisbane, Australia, to live in Oregon, USA, for a year. This meant going to a new school in a new city and making new friends. Due to the differences in school years, I started in the middle of the year and felt very out of place. I was the new kid in town who didn’t know anyone and had a funny accent. I vividly remember sitting down with a group of girls during the first lunch break. The discomfort was palpable, I didn’t realise I wasn’t supposed to sit with them, but their body language soon let me know. I shuffled away and felt hot tears sting in my eyes. It was then that another girl came up to me and said, “Hi, you’re new, aren’t you? Come sit with us.” She demonstrated empathy and kindness which I have never forgotten. We are still good friends, even though we live half a world apart, and that one act of kindness influenced both how I have parented and taught.
Amid growing concerns about the epidemic of bullying in our schools, parents and educators frequently ask me how they can put an end to both bullying in schools and within their communities. I explain that the most crucial thing they can do is demonstrate kindness, compassion and empathy for their children. It is these small acts, which may seem insignificant to us, that are surprisingly powerful in fostering concern and care for others.
Nurturing compassion in children and young people is one of the most important ways to stop emotional, verbal and physical aggression from developing.
Researchers have found that children and young people do not simply learn kindness by thinking and talking about it; it is best learned when they experience it. When our kids feel kindness from one another, they then understand what it feels like and can reproduce that feeling. They have also found that the seeds of kindness, compassion and empathy exist even when we are infants and that they are skills that can be taught. However, for these seeds to fully bloom, we need to nurture them.
Empathy does not usually fully develop until the age of eight, so younger children will have a hard time sharing and understanding other people’s feelings. However, experts have found that there is a critical period between the ages of four and seven, when children’s brains are very receptive to developing lasting habits of kindness and compassion. Simply hoping that our children will grow up to be kind people who have empathy for others is not enough – we need to help them develop these skills by consciously teaching them kindness.
We can’t just assume our children will become kind, generous people who want to help others. Not only do we need to model these behaviours, but we can also intentionally point out the acts of generosity, kindness and contribution we witness or experience throughout the day so our kids can start to understand how to integrate it into their own lives.
For example, you could have a conversation at bedtime that goes something like this, “Let’s think about all the helpers we saw today and how they helped people.” This is particularly appropriate when there is a lot of terrible news such as bushfires which can be overwhelming for children. With older kids, you could talk with them about one person they helped, or one person that made a difference in their life that day. Intentionally focus on the positive aspects of the world, so children can see that everybody can make a difference.
The news is frequently full of gloom, but you can intentionally focus on amazing articles and stories that demonstrate kindness, empathy, service and contribution and share these with your kids. This is not about ignoring reality; it is about supporting our children’s impressionable minds to develop an optimistic and hopeful outlook and disposition.
Children need to have regular opportunities to both experience and demonstrate kindness and consider other people’s feelings, circumstances and perspectives. When they regularly have these opportunities practising empathy and kindness become a natural habit for them.