As parents, we all want to raise good kids. But what does being a “good kid” actually mean? When your children are young, it might not mean very much. Consider how little your kids have to do to earn the label “good” in the following all-too-familiar situations:
You only woke up crying three times last night! Good baby!
Did my good little girl drink all of her kale and sunchoke smoothie?
Be a good boy and get me the TV remote, kiddo!
But as our children get older, we expect more from them. And so does society. Good citizens are supposed to not only take care of themselves, but also contribute to the well-being of the people and the communities around them. Teaching your kid a concept as complex and selfless as that is no small task. Especially when you’re so deep in the parenting weeds that you can’t even think about what your kids will be like twenty minutes from now, much less what kind of adults they’ll grow up to be twenty years into the future.
Fortunately, putting your little ones on the path to good citizenship doesn’t have to be as daunting as it sounds. Here are a few big reasons why:
Kids are naturally compassionate
Without parents doing much of anything to make it happen, kids typically show at least some level of concern for others, even as babies. At less than a year old, many infants react to another child’s distress by getting emotional themselves. That’s why some parents (like us) have had to rush through sad parts of books with their youngsters because if the kids see the main character upset, they’re bound to start crying too.
At about five years old, your child replaces this rather simple reaction to people’s emotions with a deeper understanding that other people have different thoughts, feelings and beliefs than they do. It isn’t until this point, when kids begin to attain real empathy, that they can truly start considering the feelings of others and acting accordingly.
No wonder so many of our appeals to “be nice” and “think about how you would feel if that were you” seem to fall flat until then!
Kids can develop their empathy skills
If you’re sick of your child’s self-centered shenanigans, don’t just sit around waiting for the behavior to change. Here are several ways you can help enhance your kid’s empathy skills:
- Play pretend! Kids who have more practice pretending, role-playing or taking acting classes tend to be better at putting themselves in another person’s shoes.
- Talk about feelings. When reading storybooks, discuss the thoughts of characters that drive them to act in the ways that they do. Or use everyday conflicts to talk about feelings: “How do you think Dillon felt when you took his toy?”
- Use discipline as an opportunity for teaching. Don’t just issue a punishment when your child does something wrong – take the time to explain why rules exist, and how they ensure we treat people with respect.
- Show your child plenty of care and compassion. Kids get lots of benefits from having parents that are warm and loving toward them, including learning that it’s nice to treat others that way themselves.
Kids want to be good
Just like adults, kids like to be considered virtuous and valuable people. Researchers at UC San Diego, University of Washington and Stanford asked some preschoolers to help them in a way that emphasized the action of helping: “When someone needs to pick things up, you could help.” Then they asked other preschoolers to help in a way that emphasized the child as a helper: “When someone needs to pick things up, you could be a helper.” The study found that kids who were encouraged to think of themselves as helpers were much more likely to assist others.
So give your kids praise when they do something kind, and use positive words like “honest” and “caring” to describe them—they’ll be more likely to think of themselves as good people, grow into good citizens and have higher self-esteem to boot!
You can promote your child’s citizenship skills even further by:
- Being a good role model. If your kids see you volunteering, working with charities and helping others, you’ll help them discover that being nice is its own reward.
- Encouraging your child to volunteer. Since kids naturally tend to get better at sharing and helping after the early elementary school years, you can support their budding humanitarian interests by encouraging them to volunteer in the community. Doing so can lead to feelings of personal responsibility for helping others and higher self-esteem.
For your child to truly develop a lifelong care and compassion for others, it has to be nurtured and practiced like any other skill. So recognize that this process will take time. But by making kindness to others a priority in your family, you’ll be continually impressed by your child’s capacity for caring!
What does being a family of good citizens mean to you?