Can you really start teaching kindness when kids are toddlers?
Yes, you can! And, you should!
And, it has been proven repeatedly that children as young as infants respond to and engage in kind and compassionate acts.
The first building block to developing kindness comes with teaching your children emotional recognition.
How will a child know when to be kind if she can’t accurately label and understand the various emotions that are experienced? She can’t. As a parent, a powerful building block to teaching kindness is teaching your child to label emotions.
First Step: Start with teaching emotional recognition with what you already do.
Labeling emotions helps your child understand her feelings and that leads to an understanding of others’ feelings.
Labeling Emotions–Starting Steps to Teaching Empathy
- Discuss and affirm their emotions
- Help your child express their feelings appropriately
- Be a good role model
- Help your child understand that other people have feelings too
- Talk about your feelings and the feelings of others
Toddlers and preschoolers fill their worlds with books, music, learning to talk, and playing. Use those same activities to foster kindness by infusing those activities with kindness.
When reading books with your child, point out the facial expressions and tone of voice used in dialogue. Label the expressions and talk about a time when you have felt those emotions.
“Oh, she looks like she has a mad face. That makes sense because her friend just said some mean things. I have been mad before, too. One time, I felt so mad because my sister dropped my favorite elephant in the toilet. It was an accident. But, I still felt mad. In the end, my mom and I washed it, and it was as good as new.”
- As the story says a character “smiled” or “frowned,” mirror that emotion on your own face. Ask your child to do the same. This should be done for facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. (use a mirror so that she can see herself making those faces)
- Verbalize what “clues” you see in the illustrations with your child while reading. Then, help your child connect that clue with a time when he or she felt that way.
- Reading the story over several times may seem boring to you, but your toddler will gain more and more with each reading.
- As you see characters give clues as to how they are feeling, predict with your child on what the characters might do next.
- Point out when you see how one character’s actions affects another character and tell your child what you see. Soon your child will be able to tell you how an action will affect the story.
- As you point out the facial expression or body language clues, add your own thoughts while giving your toddler time to process and participate. This isn’t a “quiz hour” to see if your child knows the answer. It is an opportunity for you to use the illustrations to show “clues” and give your own interpretation of clues while gaining your child’s input.
- “Oh, look at his eyebrows. When they are together like that, those eyebrows are a clue. They are telling me that he is angry.”
- “Are those tears on his face? Those tears are clues to how he is feeling. I think he is sad.”
- “How do you feel when you cry?”
- “Her arms are wide open, like she is giving a hug. That gives me a clue that tells me she is happy.”
- “How do you think (the character) is feeling when her mouth is turned down?”
- “What does her face say to you about how she is feeling with her mouth wide open?”
- “Her face is really red. What do you think she is feeling?”
Play is critical for children to learn about how to interact with others successfully. It is through play where children can refine their social skills. It is also where children learn to problem solve, recognize how to respond to emotion, and learn how to sustain relationships.
For Example: A child will learn that hitting when angry will fail to gain them the friends that they want to have.
Using play to help teach about emotion and kindness is a great way to naturally utilize how a child’s mind learns. Acting out scenarios where the child needs to correctly label emotion in order to respond appropriately leads to lasting lessons learned.
While playing with your child, use “if, then” scenarios to practice emotional recognition in a situation and kindness (at the same time!).
Pro Tip: Use the dolls and figures that you already have that your child plays with to introduce scenarios where kindness is needed.
- If you see someone sad, then . . . . “Georgia, Piglet doesn’t have a job in the kitchen like the other dolls. I know when I am not included I might feel angry or sad. How can we include him?”
- If you see someone has an owie, then . . . . “Oh, no, Clifford the Big Red Dog just fell down. I bet that really hurt. I know when I am hurt, I feel sad. How can we help him?”
- If you see someone is alone and looks like he wants to play, then . . . . “BubbleBee is all alone on the shelf. Sometimes when I am alone, I feel happy. Sometimes when I am alone, I feel lonely. Let’s go ask him if he would like to join us.”
Even a simple labeling of how they are feeling (or you are feeling) is a powerful way to help teach them emotional recognition. Your toddler or preschooler may not have highly developed verbal skills, but you can still use your own verbal skills to introduce the language around emotion and kindness.
- Label emotions and provide additional context to help them understand the situation.
- Provide an alternative, if needed, to address the emotion positively:
- “I can see that you are angry about not getting more candy. Do you feel frustrated?”
- “I see that you are sad and hurting from getting a bruise on your knee. Do you need a band-aid? A hug?”
As you have built skills around emotion, you can use those same strategies to start teaching about kindness.
Teaching About Kindness
Using Play: Keep infusing kindness opportunities while playing with your child. As simple as it is, even as your child “makes you” dinner in the play kitchen or helps diaper the play baby, those play opportunities count as kindness play!
Using Conversation: Use the following prompts with your toddler or preschoolers to develop language about kindness.
- What can we do if we see someone we want to play with?
- What if we don’t want to play with someone?
- What can we do if someone takes a toy away from us?
- What can we do if we see someone who is sad?
- What can we do if we see someone doing something nice?
- How can we ask for more snacks?
- What can we do if we don’t like something?
- If you meet a friend at the playground, what do you say to introduce yourself?
- Can you show me your best surprised/sad/happy/tired face?
- Can you guess what emotion I’m showing you right now?
- What made you sad/happy today?
- If a friend takes our toy, what could we do?
Tips for Developing Kind Language:
- Emphasize “kind language” phrases when you find them while reading books with your child. Point them out to your child and show how they help the character.
- Use them in everyday activities so that your child sees how to use them and the importance of using them.
If your child misses an opportunity to use the phrase, model it for him or her.
- “I can see that you want more grapes. When I want more grapes, I say, “Grapes please?” (Use what you think is an appropriate level of language development for your child.)
When praising your child, mention the behavior first:
- “I see you picked up the pencil I dropped. Thank you. That was helpful.”
- “You gave your train to Charlie because he was crying. That helped him feel loved. Thank you.”
One of the toughest moments is when your child is unkind or when you need to mediate between toddlers. We really think that including labeling emotions in those situations is powerful. Read more about that in When Your Toddler Is Unkind.