There are a great many things I hope my children learn over the years, but the absolute most important thing is how to be kind, empathetic people.
Kindness may sound simple, but it is something that is often lacking in our society. Simple decencies like opening the door for a stranger or being thoughtful about the words shared on social media seem to be a dying art. In a culture where the mentality is often that of “every man for himself,” I hope to buck the trend and instill within my children the importance of having an open, caring heart.
According to Dr. Megan McClelland, researcher and professor of child development at Oregon State University, it is incredibly important to teach children to be nurturing and empathetic at an early age — so that they will in turn grow to be nurturing, empathetic adults.
“Children do not learn this easily on their own, and parents or caregivers play a huge role in teaching and modeling this behavior,” she explains. Children who are taught to be nurturing are likely to experience the long-term benefits into adulthood.
As Dr. McClelland elaborates, “It forms the foundation for moral development and helps children learn how to do the right thing and make good decisions. Being nurturing and empathetic helps children learn to care about others and be more emotionally sensitive and recognize and understand emotions.”
This all sounds well and good, but the big question is: how? How can we, as parents, teach our children to be kind?
“First,” McClelland says, “parents should be caring and empathetic themselves. Showing children how they should act is the most powerful way to teach them. And when children don’t act caring or empathetic, use it as an opportunity to have a conversation about why what they did was wrong (or not the best decision) and what they could have done differently.”
She also suggests play as a way to encourage positive tendencies, “because children can act out these behaviors with others or through make-believe play. In general, play is a great avenue for learning in young children.”
Sometimes it can be easy to forget that our children are always watching us. As they navigate unchartered territory in life, they will be looking towards us as their example — and it is crucial to set a good one.
Like Dr. McClelland, I, too, am a strong proponent for teaching skills through play with my own children. I am a former preschool teacher with a degree in child and family development and a background in Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches to learning. I believe that play is a crucial part of learning and skill acquisition for children and that it is how they make sense of the world around them and develop new skills.
I’ve noticed this recently, as my family has just welcomed a new baby into our home. My older children, ages 2 and 4, have been mimicking my behavior and have become softer and more caring as a result.
They see me nursing and baby-wearing and reminding them to use quiet voices during naptime, so they want to imitate that in their own play. They also frequently try to commandeer my nursing pillow to “nurse their babies” (which often means my son is nursing a toy tractor). They love to tuck in their toys for naps, and my daughter is forever finding scarves and blankets for me to affix to her as makeshift baby wraps.
And these behaviors haven’t just been relegated to playtime. They are evident in the way my kids interact with their baby sister — snuggling her gently, trying to cheer her up when she seems sad, or grabbing a blanket when she might be a little cold. It’s been really sweet to watch and shows me that step by step, day by day, they are learning how to put others before themselves.
But this is not singular to my household — it’s something that all parents can help their children with.
Having dramatic play options that are easily accessible (such as baby dolls, dress-up costumes, a play kitchen, etc.) really does encourage children to explore the ideas of nurturing and empathy. In addition, reading books with your children helps them to further explore the themes that are emerging as they grow. Things like frustration, jealousy, worry, or excitement are all emotions that they will grapple with and helping them to communicate those feelings clearly will help them to recognize and understand them in others.
While we can only shape our children to a certain extent, I strongly believe that we are the key to raising them to be kind, caring citizens of the world. All it takes is a little play and a whole lot of love.