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Feature Article


Helping children learn about kindness

Robert Hughes, Jr., Ph.D., former Professor, Department of Human Development & Family Studies, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri


Learning to be kind and to help is important for building strong friendships. Children who have strong friendships with other children care about how they feel. They stick up for them when others tease them, and they try to make them feel better when they are hurt or sad.

Helping others is not only a key to good friendship. It is also an important social skill that will help children in all types of relationships. Even at a very early age, children can tell when others are in distress, but they still must learn how to help others. Parents and other adults can help children learn these skills.

Different kinds of helping
Children can help others in many different kinds of situations. The most common ways to help are those that take place every day. Children can learn to give praise when others do well and thank them when they help. They can also encourage others and take an interest in what other children are doing. All of these kinds of help take place as a part of daily life.

Other kinds of help may not be needed every day, but it is always important for children to learn what to do in these situations. When a child is being teased or yelled at, others should step in and stick up for the child or suggest doing something else. When another child is sad or lonely, helpful children will try to comfort the sad one by thinking of something to do or talking about times when they too were unhappy. Children can help others in many ways, and learning how to help will make them feel better about themselves and build stronger ties with friends.

Learning to put yourself in others’ shoes
It is critical for children to learn how to put themselves in someone else’s shoes if they are going to learn to help others. During the school-age years, children can begin to see things from another person’s point of view. They begin to understand that others may not view things just as they do, and they can think about how they would feel if they were in that person’s situation. Picking up on how others may be thinking and feeling allows children to understand how others might need help. For example, when a child sees another child get hurt, he or she can think about how it would hurt and understand the need for help.

In our daily lives, we can encourage children to care about others’ feelings and thoughts by helping them think about how they might feel in a certain situation. When we see people in real life or in books and on television going through good and bad situations, ask children to pay attention to how others are feeling and thinking. For example, when someone gets hurt on television, we can ask, “How do you think that person is feeling?” and “What is he or she thinking about?” These questions focus the child’s attention on how others feel and think. Also, when children talk about school or the playground, about who pushed who or who got in trouble, ask them to think about how those children must feel and what they might be thinking. Learning how to put themselves in others’ shoes and imagining how they are thinking and feeling is an important first step in learning to help others.

Teaching helping
Parents and adults can help children learn about helping others in many ways. In general, you can let them know how important it is to help. When others are unhappy or in trouble, talk about it with your children. For example, if there is a news story about someone in an accident or someone who is hungry or homeless, talk about why it is important to help these people. Children’s values come from the values they hear from others.

Children also learn how to help by doing what they see adults do. When you as an adult help someone, you can make a point of showing the child how it works when someone is helpful. For example, a little brother or sister might fall down and start crying. As you help, talk about how you understand that the child is hurt. Explain your own feelings of distress at seeing someone else hurt. And as you comfort the crying child, talk about the good feelings you have when you can make others feel better. By sharing your thoughts and feelings, children can both see and hear about your kindness, and they will have a better idea about how to help. You may want children to pay special attention to everyday situations where other children are crying, frustrated, or lonely. These are important times to help.

You can also teach children how to help by telling them how good they are when they are helpful. When children show care or have ideas about helping others, take note of it. You might say something like, “You are being a big help to your little brother today,” or “You’re really helpful to our family.” By praising children when they help, we teach them how important it is to be helpful and how others notice it.

Children also learn about helping by taking care of others. When children have a chance to look after younger brothers and sisters or to help other playmates, they get good practice in helping. School-age children are too young to babysit all alone, of course, but they can look out for others for short times while adults are in another room. Explain clearly to children what they are to do. “I want you to look after your sister while I do some laundry.” Tell children that they are really in charge of caring for the little one.

There are many other chances to encourage children to help each other. They can teach others how to do chores, such as how to sweep, how to set the table, or how to fold clothes. They can teach others how to care for themselves or get dressed or how to play games and do homework. By learning to help brothers, sisters, and playmates, they are learning how to be good friends to each other. Children can also learn to help by caring for adults. Doing chores for grandparents, neighbors, or others who need help can also teach them about helping.

Finally, we teach children about helping others by treating them with love and kindness. When their cares and hurts are treated with kindness, they experience the good feelings that come from being helped. From this, they understand for themselves the value of helping. They know that when they show kindness, they are making others feel good.

Discussion Questions
The following questions could be used to talk with children.

  1. Sometimes children call other kids names or tease them. Have you ever seen other kids get teased? What could you do to help?
  2. Do you think it’s important to help your friends? Why?
  3. It can help to think about how others feel. How can you tell how others are feeling? What can you do to put yourself in their shoes?
  4. How would someone feel whose best friend moved away? What could you do to help them?

Ask children to think about how they would think and feel if they were in the following situations and how they would want to be helped.

  • You are a new kid in school.
  • You have just lost a favorite pet.
  • You can’t do some of the math problems in school.
  • You aren’t very good at playing sports.




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Last Updated 11/09/2015