Inside: Teaching our kids to remain kind when others are unkind to them is the hardest part of intentionally raising kind kids. But there are ways we can help our kids to be kind when others are mean to them. It just takes these three tricks. And a lot of repetition.
“I’ll be kind when she’s kind to me.”
“She’s not nice to me, why should I be kind to her?”
“He’s mean so I’m mean back.”
All of these words have come from my kids. Just this month.
>>Insert eye roll here.<<
We are on purpose teaching our kids to be kind little people. Because we want them to grow up to be kind adults.
Teaching our kids to be kind is so important to us, it’s one of our only two family rules.
We expect kindness. We model kindness. And we praise kindness.
But one of the hardest parts of teaching kids to be kind is helping them stay kind when other people are mean to them.
And it’s especially tricky helping one of our children act with kindness when it’s one of our other children who is acting with meanness.
Siblings squabbles tend to bring out the worst in our kids.
So how do we help our kids stay kind when others are mean to them?
Do We Have to Be Kind All the Time?
First, we need a Kindness Disclaimer.
I want my kids to be kind people. I think it’s a true test of character and a real sign of strength to be kind to others.
But with that being said, I do not want them to be taken advantage of because of their kindness.
So we need to understand, there’s a difference between being kind and letting people walk all over you.
I also do not teach my kids they need to be friends with everyone. Some kids don’t jive, or mesh, or play well together. Some kids are downright mean or have different values than us. My kids do not need to try to be friends with those kids.
But, even though I teach my kids they don’t have to be friends with everyone, I do teach and expect my kids to be friendly to everyone.
And if someone is consistently mean or unkind, we teach our kids to walk away, find somewhere else to be, and get adult help if needed. We don’t want our kids to sit there and take it or to endure bullying of any kind.
But we also tell them they can walk away without being mean. They can protect themselves emotionally without replying with a mean dig, snarky comment, or their tongue being stuck out.
The Hardest Part of Teaching Kids to Be Kind
It’s easy to be kind to someone who is kind to you.
When someone gives you something, it can be easy to remember to say “thank you.”
When a friend gives you a compliment, it’s pretty easy to give them one back.
When a sibling offers you a lick of their lollipop, it’s easy to remember to offer them a lick of yours.
But one of the hardest things-and a true test of character- is whether we can be kind to unkind people.
It’s those hard moments when others are mean that show our true colors. Our reactions are a mirror into our personalities and our hearts.
So how do we teach our kids to remember their kindness?
We need to explain to our kids-BEFORE they’re in the moment of anger or being mad– why they need to be kind to others.
Remembering the why can help kids remember to act with kindness when they don’t feel like it.
Why Being Kind When Others are Mean is Crucial:
Being kind is about what kind of person we choose to be; it’s not about other people.
Kindness is a choice we make: how we act, what we say, and how we say it.
Every day we decide how we are going to interact with others. How we’ll treat them and how we present ourselves to the world.
If we have chosen and purposefully decided to be a kind person, then that’s it. Our choices need to reflect that decision. The hard part is we need to remember to match our actions to that decision:
- to smile at others,
- to say “no” politely,
- to help when it’s needed,
- to include others and invite them to join in,
- to offer to get siblings a snack when we get ours, etc.
Because other people are watching us and taking cues from us. And how we treat others shows them how we want to be treated in return.
If my eldest daughter frequently remembers to pour 3 cups of water instead of just one for herself, eventually, one day her siblings will get it. It’ll click. They’ll get her a cup of water when they get one.
Kindness is treating others how you want to be treated. Kindness is not, treat people how they treat you.
So we need to act as if the people in our lives are kind.
And we need to remember that kindness is not an option. It’s just a simple, normal everyday reaction.
Even if our friends say something nasty. Or our sister takes our stuff. Or the guy in front of us doesn’t hold the door open for us.
Our kids can hear the nasty words and choose not to say something nasty back. They can say “Don’t speak to me that way,” or “That was unkind” or “You can’t talk like that to me.” Because they are of course allowed to speak up and speak out towards meanness. But they don’t need to do it in a mean way.
Our kids can have their siblings do something unkind without the need to retaliate. They can be mad or irritated or downright furious. They can say “Stop it” or “That hurts my feelings” or “You’re being unkind and I don’t like it.” But they don’t have to call names, be mean back, or physically hurt each other to show their anger.
We can hold the door open for the person behind us even if the person in front of us didn’t do it for us.
And all of these things can happen with practice. And when we remind our kids often why we’re kind in the first place. So we talk about the importance of kindness and how much we value it.
Why should we be kind?
We often hear about how we should be kind. And there are lists upon lists of ideas for kids to show kindness like these. But we rarely talk about the why.
And there are a million reasons why we should be kind.
But for our younger kids, one of the simplest ways to start to explain the importance of kindness is to frame it in terms of what’s in it for them: How being kind to others will actually help our kids.
Because science has proven that young children’s brains are wired to be self-centered when they are young, children struggle to put themselves in other people’s shoes and imagine how other people feel.
So with their brain development in mind, we can use these ideas to explain why they should be kind. Which will help them remember to be kind when others are being mean:
1. Being kind feels good.
Acts of kindness towards others improves our mood. When we feel good, and do good, and act good, our dopamine levels in our brains increase and we want to do more good. Being kind makes us happier. So then we want to be more kind. Which makes us even happier. And the pattern continues…
TRY IT NOW: When your child does something kind, ask them: “How did being kind make you feel?” They will begin to associate happy feelings with their kind actions. And over time, they’ll want to replicate it.
2. When you’re kind, kindness will find you back.
Call it karma or The Secret or good juju, but kindness will eventually find us if we are truly kind to others. It may not find our kids today or on the playground or right this minute with how their sibling is treating them, but it will come.
TRY IT NOW: When you see someone being kind to your child (especially their sibling!!), point it out. Praise it. Remind your kids that others are kind to them often. And now it’s their job to keep being kind to other people so kindness keeps on “finding them.”
3. We can build up our kids’ emotional intelligence when we label and discuss how our kids feel and offer suggestions to regulate their emotions.
When our kids are mad, irritated, or frustrated, we can give them the tools they need to calm down before they respond.
If they calm down first and then respond, their response will be more measured and more controlled than if they respond “in the heat of the moment.”
TRY IT NOW: When you see your child getting mad or irritated, offer them ways to calm down. They can try any calm down technique that works for them. Some ideas to try include: slowly counting to ten, taking deep breaths, thinking three happy thoughts, or using essential oils to calm down.
Once they’re calm, they can respond and communicate with the person who made them mad or frustrated. Those few seconds or minutes will lessen their fight or flight response and their knee-jerk reaction to retaliate will be lessened.
But keep in mind, these are not one-time conversations. None of these concepts can be explained to a child only once.
These are teachable moments that need to be on constant repeat. You will become a broken record. Which is okay, because this is one message you want them to hear often.
And over time, it’ll sink in.
Kindness will become their inner voice guiding their actions, even when they don’t really feel like being kind to mean people.
And as our kids get older, and their brains develop, and their experiences expand, they will begin to think outside of their me-centered worlds.
And we can begin to teach them other reasons for being kind that expand past themselves: that being kind improves the other person’s day and makes their life better, happier or easier- even just for a minute.
Because focusing on others and interacting with friends, acquaintances, and perfect strangers in positive ways will make the world a better place.
But for now, we focus on our kids and their me-centered minds.
So when we hear the common cry, “But she’s not being kind to me,” or “I’ll be kind when he’s kind” or “Why should I be nice to her if she’s so mean?,” we can hug our kids.
We can tell them it’s hard to remember to be kind when others aren’t. Because it really is hard, even for grown-ups.
And when they’ve calmed down and are ready to really hear us and our message yet again, we can remind them that even when others are unkind, it’s their job to stay kind.
Because that’s who they really are inside their heart: kind little people on the path to become kind adults.