As parents, we want our children to understand concepts like empathy and kindness. We want to raise compassionate humans who spread love like Nutella. But we are swamped and overwhelmed… so do you find little ways to teach empathy and giving in between soccer games and homework? How do you turn regular, everyday moments into opportunities to teach how nice it is to—well, be nice? Here are a few ideas.
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The most important thing is to help kids be more aware of the people around them—especially the ones who might need a little extra love. Ask your kiddos to think about:
- Friends who are going through a tough time – One of our girls recently mentioned that a friend’s parents were divorcing. It was an opportunity to talk about what that means for the friend—how much her life would change and how she might be feeling. It opened the door to talk about empathy and what being a good friend really means. What can you say or do to help? What would you like to hear if you were her? How can you help her feel comforted and loved and supported?
- Classmates or neighborhood kiddos who are new, shy or don’t seem to have a lot of friends – Is there anyone who eats alone in the cafeteria? Plays alone in the driveway or doesn’t get asked to join in the fun? Ask your child to describe different ways they could extend a little kindness. Brainstorm ways to offer friendship or share a snack. Then set a goal for the day or week to reach out.
- Friends or neighbors who are going through difficulties – Do you know a whole family who’s experiencing challenges—like a job loss or serious illness? Talk to kids about what that might feel like or ways it could change the daily life of a family. Brainstorm ways you can help or encourage them: a grocery gift card inside a handwritten note of encouragement? A water bill payment? A gift card to eat dinner out?
- Adults who may be sad or lonely – Our elderly neighbors lost their beloved dog this year, and they’ve really been down about it. I talked to my girls about what to do to cheer them up. And even though they can’t fix what’s upsetting our friends, they can show their support and love. The girls wrote notes and drew pictures of the dog. They also found a photo of the pupper on social media, printed it and had it nicely framed as a gift. The girls got to see the huge difference such a small gesture can make and how much it can mean to honor and acknowledge someone else’s grief.
Being nice is more than just noticing when someone’s down in the dumps—it’s for celebrating the awesome stuff they bring to the world, too. Help kids remember and be grateful to all the people who make our lives better. Specifically, ask them to think about who might love to receive a note or card with a thoughtful message,* including:
- Grandparents, both the ones nearby and the ones who live far away (especially ones we haven’t been able to hug in a while)
- Teachers and coaches whose patience and sanity are tried on a regular basis
- Cousins: the fun-bringers, hug-givers, good friends who (bonus!) you’re related to
- Friends—both the besties and the casual acquaintances who you see in the hallways, talk video games with, or Zoom with
- Neighbors/bus drivers/mail carriers, etc.—those people who do a lot of big and little things for us
*Bonus: Sending these little notes is a great way for kids to practice addressing an envelope and writing out their own address.
Here are some easy, kid-friendly ideas to get you started.
- Make a kindness chain. Plan to do something nice for someone else every day. At dinner, talk about what everybody did, and write each act of kindness on a long, thin rectangle of construction paper. Tape the first one into a circle to start the chain and link the next one through it. See how long you can make your chain throughout the year.
- “Change” the world. Wrap a few quarters in tissue paper or a baggie, and attach a tag that says, “Love can CHANGE the world!” Leave them on washers at a local laundromat.
- Donate goodies. Give your kids a budget (so they have to do math), and let them choose baked goods or treats to donate to your local fire department or police station.
- Warm hearts (and weather). Get in touch with your school social worker to see what her clients’ needs are. This can be especially helpful as seasons change. For example, many families can use summer clothing donations, fans, gently used bicycles, etc. My family recently picked up two kid’s bikes on the curb marked “free,” cleaned them up and aired up the tires (all free, elbow-grease labor). The girls picked out new helmets and we delivered them to our school’s social worker—she was thrilled to get them immediately to a family in need and our kids were so excited.
- Fill a pantry. Let the kids choose favorite cereals, pastas or canned goods to donate. You can take the goods to a local food pantry or—our favorite—stock up the nearest Little Free Pantry. Bonus points for fun or heartfelt notes taped to each item. Consider adding a fun little treat for kids like Play-Doh, sidewalk chalk or crayons, too!
- Lend a hand. Come up with a chore you can do for someone in the neighborhood: doing yard work for a single parent, organizing the garage for elderly neighbors or washing the car for the guy down the street with the broken leg.
- Write a personalized thank-you note. Make a list of all the ways someone you love makes you smile. Then write them a note, and tuck the list inside.
The coolest kids are the kindest kids. (Pretty sure that’s true for adults, too.) Let hugs, thoughtfulness and good deeds bring more fun and love to your family.