“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” - Henry James

Kindness is not just a feeling. It is a skill that takes children years to develop. All too often we talk about ‘sharing is caring’ with children, pressuring them into sharing or taking turns. This strong expectation for children to be kind can override the vital support we should be giving children in order to build their capacity for kindness. Sharing is only caring when a child understands kindness! Otherwise they are simply learning a social behaviour without the important heart and mind connection.

Children can develop meaningful kindness when they are able to:

  • Understand their own feelings – 3-4 years
  • Understand other people’s feelings – 3-4 years
  • Understand other people’s perspectives – 4-5 years

Until these skills are acquired, children will say and do kind things, but they will have learned to do these as a social behaviour rather than fully understanding what kindness really means.

The science behind kindness

There is motivation enough for kindness! Science demonstrates that being kind:

  • Boosts both serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters in the brain that give us a good sense of wellbeing or satisfaction. The ‘reward centres’ in the brain literally light up when we are kind
  • Increases self-esteem
  • Improves mood
  • Decreases our blood pressure and cortisol, the stress hormone directly responsible for our stress levels

We need to know calm to be kind

Kindness is a skill that grows best in an environment of tolerance and compassion. At the same time, kindness occurs more frequently when we are in a calm state. When a child is overwhelmed by and unable to regulate feelings, kindness simply cannot develop as effectively. There is the story of a child who was unable to regulate his feelings effectively in his pre-school, and as a result, was lashing out to both children and teachers. After many months of careful co-regulation, the boy’s teacher was amazed to see him comforting another child. “This could not have happened while his feelings were so powerful,” said his teacher. “We had to support him through co-regulation, helping him regulate all overwhelming feelings he had. Only then could he reach out to others to help them.”

Learning to cope with both our own feelings and the perspectives of others may not always be a pleasant process. With the help of loving adults, children learn - slowly, slowly - to manage unpleasant feelings and understand other perspectives. Co-regulation is the key word here, where children are helped through stormy, unpleasant feelings back to calm again, with loving strategies, over and over again.

When does kindness begin to grow?

Kindness can grow from birth! The presence of loving and responsive caregivers creates the groundwork for developing kindness. Warm and responsive interactions in a child’s early years are key in placing the foundations for every emotional skill we possess as a child and beyond.

Steps in building kindness

Step 1 - Be responsive and loving! When a child looks sad, respond lovingly, “You look sad, would you like a cuddle?”

Step 2 - Acknowledge feelings; label them and then talk about them. “You look happy!” “You look cross. Tell me what happened.” “You love it here! Shall we come to the park again tomorrow?” Remember that by 3-4 years, most children are beginning to understand their own feelings more and more and to understand other people’s feelings.

Step 3 - Acknowledge perspectives with your 4-5-year-old child, and label/talk about them.

“Poor Tom, he’s not wearing a coat. He must feel so cold. Shall we find his coat for him?”

“Mary has fallen over. Her knee must hurt. Let’s go and help her up.”

Remember that by the age of 4-5, most children are able to see different perspectives of others in familiar situations, i.e. know that a sibling is cold because they are not wearing a coat.

Step 4 - Read stories. Stories are a powerful vehicle for building kindness and empathy because children can clearly see and understand other people’s perspectives in an engrossing context that they enjoy. Such enjoyment gives them confidence to voice anything they’d like to share about the story. Talking about feelings and perspectives in this way is one of the most powerful ways to learn about how other people feel and think.

Call to action

Building a generation of kind children takes time, energy and emotional maturity. In short, we:

  • Support children in co-regulation
  • Notice kindness
  • Model kindness
  • Acknowledge kindness
  • Appreciate kindness

Children are more likely to be kind when they see kindness around them and when they are in a place of calm regulation. Genuine and repeated acts of kindness produce kindness. But like anything that grows, kindness needs to be seeded, cultivated and encouraged.

This happens best in an environment where co-regulation is the norm, and where such kindness is seen, practised, talked about and most importantly, enjoyed.

About the author:

Helen is a mother of 4 and a committed and experienced early years consultant. She is Education Director at Arc Pathway, a sensitive profiling and next steps early years platform for teachers and parents. She has a wealth of experience in teaching, both in the primary sector and early years, co-founding and running her own pre-school in 2005. Helen has written books for the early years sector, including Developing Empathy in the Early Years” (winner of the Nursery World Awards Professional Book Category 2018) and Building a Resilient Workforce in the Early Years” (Early Years Alliance 2019). She regularly writes for early years publications such as Nursery World. 

Helen can be contacted via LinkedIn.

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