What does it take to help children learn empathy, respect and kindness when there are so many conflicting messages all around us these days?

Between the spread of COVID-19, widespread quarantine orders, racial strife in the news, and resulting demonstrations around the country, the last few months have been challenging for almost all Americans. And during each event, our children watch and see how we respond and react.

With news channels broadcasting upsetting stories around the clock, and social media now used as a platform for many to disagree and air opinions in less-than-respectful ways, it seems there is no better time to have a conversation about kindness with our children.

“Raising kind and empathetic kids couldn’t be any more important right now,” said Milena Batanova, research & evaluation manager with Making Caring Common, a program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “These are scary, confusing, and historic times, and empathy can be one antidote to help our young people – and the adults that set an example for them – make sense of it all and feel compelled to do something good.”

MCC’s mission is to help schools, families, and communities raise children who care about others and the common good. They offer several family resources that parents can tap into for strategies on fostering empathy and kindness in children. Batanova says a good place to start is with the stories you read or watch with your children. 

“Actively seeking stories featuring people of color as protagonists or heroes could be one step to fostering empathy,” said Batanova. “We also have seven tips for raising caring kids. Particularly now, when many parents might be spending more time with their children, having meaningful conversations and purposeful time together is key. What we model to our children matters, and we should not only be mindful how we talk about others, but also what we do for others.” 

Dr. Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and professor of education at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he directs the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs (Respect and Responsibility). Lickona, also author of the book “How to Raise Kind Kids,” says now is an ideal time for a conversation with our kids about what kindness and empathy are all about – and what those traits look like in action.

“My heart just breaks to see what is happening,” he said. “Everything that has just exploded. There are so many dimensions to what is happening nationally. It just underscores our responsibility as parents to teach respect.”

And, in fact, respect, kindness and empathy may be critical skills for kids to master, because research finds it is beneficial.

A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health followed hundreds of students from kindergarten through early adulthood. The students, who were from low-income households in North Carolina, Tennessee, Washington and Pennsylvania, were rated as kindergartners on how well they demonstrated kind behaviors, like being helpful to others, understanding others’ feelings, and cooperating with peers.

The research revealed the level of “pro-social” (i.e.: kindness and cooperation) behavior helped predict their outcomes later in life. Factors like education, career success, criminal activity and addiction were also examined. Students who were kinder and more cooperative with their peers had better outcomes in all of those areas.

Lickona has suggestions for both short term and long-term actions that parents can engage in at home to help their kids learn respect and kindness. One important opportunity for teaching is the family table, he said.

“Mention it at dinner,” said Lickona. “Ask ‘What is something kind you did today?’ 

If you have that time together it gives you context for conversation. You build that tradition of meaningful conversation.”

Lickona said psychologists called habits like regular conversation at dinner “connective rituals” and they can be powerful in helping to establish long term behavior. While it can take place at dinner, if you are more of an on-the-go family who doesn’t often have time to sit down, it can happen in the car. Establish that conversation is expected, and don’t allow kids to be glued to a screen, said Lickona.

Like Batanova, Lickona also suggests choosing books and media that have kindness in the theme. Or simply put a quotation on the fridge like “We become kind by doing kind acts” that can be a visual reference point in the home. And praise your kids using kindness language, said Lickona. Say “Thanks for being a kind person” regularly.

“Sit down and think about what you want to teach your kids,” he said “How do you make that a priority in the home? Have a family mission statement. Make a list with expected behaviors like ‘We show kindness in our words’ on it.” 

And of course, model kind behavior yourself. Parents should be using all opportunities to show kindness and resolve conflicts with good, exemplary behavior.

“No matter what you do there will be problems and conflicts,” he said. “Parents will argue but they need ways to solve conflict that is positive. Parents should have a dedicated space to solve problems.” 

Batanova echoes Lickona and notes it is only through living a kind life ourselves that we can truly teach our children real kindness and empathy.

“Too often, we think about ways we can help our children without truly reflecting on the need to help or work on ourselves. We can all be better and do better, and it’s important that parents confront their own limitations in experiencing and modeling empathy.”