A couple of weeks ago, a dear friend and respected colleague pointed out to me that the roots of my work on kindness go deeper than the corporation, into classrooms and homes where children are taught and raised. She asked me to write about the practice of kindness in parenting. I haven’t raised children of my own, and I felt out of my depth in approaching the topic even while agreeing with her insight. But I still wanted to do it. So I decided to ask her, and many other friends, how they maintain kindness in the ways that they interact, and how they foster kindness in their families.
Here are ten tips for kind parenting and kind children that I heard when listening to these many wise voices. No order or hierarchy implied, just deep respect for the good work these parents are doing. Note that I’m using initials out of respect for the privacy of the people who opened their hearts to me.
1. Kind parents raise kind children when they show kindness to others.
- Model kindness in every interaction. Children see and understand so much when you think they aren’t looking. It’s easy to be kind to a good friend or a nice person, but it really means something when they see you can be kind to someone who isn’t kind. (KIH)
- Modeling behavior is huge. Kids see and hear you from as early as 4 months, if not earlier. They will emulate you, your spouse, and your friends. Show them the world as you want it to be. (BZ)
- Practice kindness and expose your kids to others who practice kindness. (KBC)
If other children or adults are not kind to our kids, we try to understand what is happening for that person. What is the explanation (not the excuse!) for their bad behavior. (MS)
2. Kind parents use mindfulness to reflect before reacting.
- I’ve learned not to overreact, especially considering my autistic son. Any overreaction had a cascading negative effect that at times took days to reverse. (DM)
- I’ve resolved not to yell. Our family smiles and talks it out. When we butt heads, we say “I’m not allowing you to take away my smile. (MSB)
- We also give more control to the kids as they grow, and this may allow them to be less reactive and more thoughtful about what they want and what they’re doing. (LW)
- Watch for things that trigger anger in yourself and learn tools to handle situations before you explode all over your kids. (LGP)
3. Kind parents keep their children’s worlds open.
- Read all kinds of things, listen to music, travel, and share information on topics they ask about. Be there for your child and engage in life. (BZ)
- Dinner table conversations are open to any topic. In our family, this applies both to our dinner table and the Sunday dinner table at my parents’, which we share with uncles, aunties and cousins. (KBC)
- Look at the whole, beautiful individual in front of you rather than trying to shape him into the person you want him to be or think he should be. Give time and space and choices and room to make their own discoveries and mistakes. (LGP)
- Parenting is all about opening up the world to a kid, and providing a level of emotional support and encouragement that allows kids to not just succeed, but also to fail gloriously. I try really hard to give my kids as much “leash” as I possibly can, and teach them good problem solving skills that they can practice. (LW)
4. Kind parents instill compassion for other species.
- Respect all species and reflect on why you do. (BZ)
- Having pets in their lives has transformed my children. Their senses of compassion and kindness has blossomed from loving animals and being unconditionally loved in return. (BW)
- When my daughter cries in the seafood aisle lamenting the fate of the lobsters, I don’t ridicule her; I hug her. (AP)
5. Kind parents seek to understand and validate rather than shut children down.
- Before getting frustrated and denying their feelings, the validity of their perception of the world, I try to affirm it verbally, at the very least, relate to it with a word or two, sometimes a story from childhood or from the present day. (SPW)
- Our middle child is genderfluid, and we have tried to be as open and supportive about how they are making their way in the world as possible. (LW)
- When my daughter talks to me, I listen. I put away my phone, close my laptop, turn off the television and give her my undivided attention. (AMP)
- Honor their feelings – good and bad. Even when they’re upset about something that we feel like isn’t a big deal to us, we should honor and recognize their POV. (MS)
- Throw away punishments. Life will offer ample limits and roadblocks. Whoever thought it was a good idea to try to make kids act “good” by causing them to feel bad? (LGP)
6. Kind parents foster kind schooling options.
- Kindness is being taught in my children’s school. It offers regularly scheduled activities centered on teaching kindness and empathy as part of a character development program. They pair older and younger children. My daughter is able to see an older child model patience and kindness while helping her. I think practicing kindness to littler children makes the older ones feel really good, too. (BW)
- Compelling other human beings to do things, without regard to their input, interests, desires… Is that what we would want done to us as adults? How is it kind to do that to children? That includes education. I don’t think it’s particularly kind to tell another person what to learn, when to learn it, and how to learn it, and then to reward or punish that person for how well he is able to do as he’s been told. (LGP)
- Let them quit things. Dabbling is good. The more things they get to try, the more they get to discover what they like and don’t like. Don’t make them stick with something just because they started, or because you paid for it. (LGP)
7. Kind parents create community.
- If you don’t have good parenting role models from your own life, find some. Get support. (LGP)
- As a parent you are constantly wondering, evaluating etc. Because I want to be the best patent I can be, I started a book club where we ask each other questions, read nerdy parenting books, etc. I even write up “Cliff’s Notes” for moms who don’t have time to read the books. (BZ)
- As LGBT parents, my husband and I thought it was important to raise our children in a religious community to foster kindness. Judaism focuses much more on our acts than our beliefs. As Jews, we believe there is a moral obligation to be kind to the “stranger” because we were strangers and slaves in Egypt. As a result, we have always emphasized involvement in the Jewish community as a way of fostering kindness in our children. (MF)
8. Kind parents don’t take cues from conventional wisdom.
- I think it is kind to question and pick apart age-old (as well as trendy new) “truisms” about parenting and ask yourself mindfully how they apply to your child and your family and your philosophy: Things like, “They need structure!” or “A rule is a rule and they must follow it!” or “You are their parent, not their friend!” (LGP)
- I try really hard to give my kids as much “leash” as I possibly can, and teach them good problem solving skills that they can practice. For example, both my older kids dropped out of traditional school and attended a self-directed learning school where kids can pursue what they’re interested in. The transition to college for our oldest daughter was largely free of the stress and upheaval and poor decision-making that marks so many kids’ freshman years. (LW)
9. Kind parents apologize.
- When I do yell, I apologize to myself and him. (MSB)
- I apologize to my kids all the time. Acknowledging mistakes is important, saying you’re sorry is important, accepting people’s apologies, not holding a grudge and moving forward from there is important. I often tell them that living with other people isn’t easy, it necessarily involves making compromises and not always getting your way. (SPW)
10. Kind parents deserve a healthy dose of self-compassion.
No one parent said this to me directly, but instead, each parent expressed concern that they might make mistakes, that they don’t always practice the principles they wish to. I doubt that parenting perfection exists outside the myths and anxieties of our media and marketing culture. So I would close this list of tips by responding with a final tip of my own, coming back to my friend’s original appeal for a post on kindness and parenting. When parents show kindness to themselves, see their own potential flaws, and forgive themselves in advance for missteps, they open a channel of confidence in their higher-level commitment to kind parenting and kind children.
Kindness does not mean flawlessness. It means “Trust, Respect, Choice,” as one of the children of these parents described it when she asked him what he thought about the topic. By direct application of these principles to themselves as parents, parents further magnify the kindness they instill in their children.
All of the parents who joined their voices to this list made their commitment to kind parenting and kind children abundantly clear. I am both grateful for and humbled by their firm commitments to helping other parents do their best, and to fostering a type of kindness that their children can practice and spread to others throughout their lives. In building a better, kinder world, we all do our parts.