Helping kids develop a sense of empathy, perspective and compassion in their everyday lives is parenting challenge we all want to conquer – and it starts from an early age.

However,  there's often a gap between what parents say are their priorities for their children, and the message they put forward every day in their behaviour,  a recent Harvard study found.

"Our youth’s values appear to be awry, and the messages we are unintentionally sending as adults may be at the heart of the problem," say the authors of the Harvard 'Making Caring Common' project.

"Research in human development clearly shows that the seeds of empathy, caring, and compassion are present from early in life, but that to become caring, ethical people, children need adults to help them at every stage of childhood to nurture these seeds into full development."

 There are some practical things you can do to ensure you are behaving in a way that will cultivate kindness in your child, and parents of empathetic children tend to share certain similar behaviours, says developmental psychologist and Harvard graduate, Dr Luba Feigenberg. She lists them here:

They are strong role models. Children learn by example, so parents need to be positive role models and mentors. Parents who are strong role models engage in behaviours such as helping others, treating people kindly, admitting to their child when they have made a mistake, apologising when they have done something wrong and consulting with people they trust when they are having a difficult time. It’s also important for parents to take care of themselves and try to minimise stress, which will enable them to be more caring to others.

They talk openly to their children. Parents should not underestimate the value of talking with their children openly about moral and ethical behaviour. This includes discussing what healthy relationships look like, expressing gratitude and appreciation for good things that have happened and affirming children’s efforts and achievements. This is on top of using mistakes as learning opportunities and pointing out and discussing unethical acts and deeds. Children are keen observers and their perceptions are greatly influenced by the adults in their lives. It is important that parents spend time with their children and make an effort to discuss the importance of treating others well and also demonstrate what that looks like. Parents who want their children to value caring and compassion should behave morally in their own lives.

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They make caring for others a priority. Parents and schools can make caring for others a top priority for their children by clearly communicating that caring is as important as individual happiness or achievement. In fact, treating others kindly should be presented as a key element of being happy and successful. One way to approach this is by setting high ethical expectations for children so that having compassion and contributing positively at home and in school is a given. It also helps them learn to do the right thing even when it is hard, such as showing respect and kindness in difficult circumstances, standing up for fairness and justice and being honest with others.

They teach their children to manage their feelings. Often the ability to care for others is overshadowed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings. We can teach children that all feelings are ok, but that some ways of dealing with them are not useful. Children need our help learning to cope with both positive and negative feelings in productive ways. Teaching children to manage their feelings and develop self-control is key to their learning to care for and be empathetic towards others. A lack of compassion can lead to poor interactions with peers and adults, inconsiderate and selfish behaviour, as well as being mean or bullying.

They provide ways for kids to practise kindness. Children need to practise caring for others and being grateful - it’s important for them to express appreciation for the many people who contribute to their lives. Studies show that people who engage in the habit of expressing gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving. They’re also more likely to be happy and healthy. Learning to be grateful and caring is in certain respects like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily practise - whether it’s helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, having a classroom job, or routinely reflecting on what we appreciate about others - makes caring and gratitude second nature and help develop children’s caregiving capacities.

Dr. Luba Feigenberg was speaking at the parenting talk ‘Ethical and Moral Development in Young Children: Raising Children Who Care About Others and their Communities’ by the Salama bint Hamdan Al Nahyan Foundation, which took place in Abu Dhabi in May 2016. To find out more, visit www.shf.ae.

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