The Importance of Modeling Kindness and Empathy

By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends

The Importance of Modeling Kindness and EmpathyA new viral trend has been reported recently in the news: the “New Teacher Challenge.” Parents show their children photos of different people and tell them that this is their child’s new teacher. The kids’ reactions are filmed and shared with others or posted on social media with the purported intent of being funny. While the supposed “teacher’s” picture is usually a mugshot or an image of someone making a silly face, in some cases, those images are of people with physical disabilities or deformities. Kids may react in fear while the parents laugh and post the video on TikTok for the amusement of others.

This is disturbing on so many levels. The pictures being shared are of real people (without their permission) who may have struggled all their lives. Motivational speaker and author Lizzie Velasquez, writer Ariel Henley, and writer and disability activist Melissa Blake, all of whom have physical deformities and have been bullied all their lives, have shared their reactions to being used online as a cruel joke to others. Being different is rarely easy, since there are often others who will make fun of you, especially as a child. Imagine seeing a video of a child reacting fearfully to your picture and realizing that people all over the world are laughing at it. This is an example of cyberbullying, not just of the person pictured, but also of the children who have not consented to have their reactions shared on social media.

Sadly, this is unsurprising in our current culture, where hatred, violence, and lack of empathy for others who are different—in their race, religious beliefs, political beliefs, sexual orientation, body type, and country of origin (to name just a few)—seem to have reached epidemic levels. Every day we see the disrespect that adults have for other adults in the news. The protests over the summer are a reflection of the emotional damage done when people are harmed by those sworn to protect them. It is dehumanizing. At the same time, we know it is not fair to judge an entire group based on the actions of a few. That can be demoralizing to those who are trying their best and risking their lives to help others.

We need to work harder to build a kinder society. This starts with how we raise children. Kids learn by example. As adults, we have a responsibility to raise emotionally healthy, responsible, respectful, and kind children. Kids learn by watching how we treat them and others. The poem “Children Learn What They Live” by Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D., has been around for many years and speaks to this issue. To quote the first line: “If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.” How many of us value kindness in the kids we work with or parent as much as we value achievement? Or winning? Or obedience?

We set an example for kids when they observe how we treat others. When they see teachers yelling at students or putting them down, they learn this is acceptable behavior. When we yell or cuss at drivers who cut us off in traffic, kids learn this is okay. If we say unkind things about others in a child’s presence, they learn to be critical. When we treat those who work for us or wait on us at stores or restaurants—or who remind us that we need to wear masks to keep others safe—as somehow less than us, or beneath our dignity or unworthy of our respect, we all lose. These lessons are not lost on children. They watch us.

Kids are naturally self-centered. They are still learning how to handle their emotions and developing the capacity to think about how their words and actions affect others. They need our help in developing empathy. Showing empathy for others is a skill that increases the likelihood that your child will be successful in school, on the job, in friendships and relationships, as a parent, and in life.

When you see kids mistreating each other, which is common (siblings fight frequently), instead of criticizing or disciplining the perceived aggressor, you can ask kids questions in a calm tone to help them understand. For example, you might ask, “Hey, I see you’re pretty upset. What happened? Why do you think your classmate was mad at you? How do you think what you said or did affected them? How would you feel if someone said that (or did that) to you? Is that how would you want that person to feel? How could you have expressed your feelings in a nicer way?” This works at school as well as at home.

In today’s busy world, it often seems easier to focus on what children are doing wrong than on what they are doing right. But it’s always a good idea to pay more attention to the good behavior. Kids crave attention, and if they know they’ll get positive attention for good behavior, they are more likely to keep it up. If they get more attention for bad behavior, then you’ll see more of that.

Paying attention to when kids are showing kindness or empathy, and praising them for it, makes it more likely that such behavior will continue. For example, you could say, “I noticed how nicely you talked to your little brother today. Did you see him smile? It means a lot to him, and to me, when you are kind.” When you explain the reasons why certain behaviors are good or bad, kids are more likely to internalize those values and demonstrate caring toward others when you are not watching them.

Encouraging good manners is a great way to facilitate kindness and empathy. It shows respect to others when you use words such as please, thank you, and you’re welcome. Model these with your kids when you talk to them. Everyone reacts better to requests when asked nicely. When you treat kids with respect, they learn to treat you with respect as well.

Part of learning empathy and kindness involves teaching kids how to express their feelings constructively—especially anger, which can be destructive to relationships. For example, it’s not okay to hit or call names when you’re angry, but it’s okay to say, “Mommy, I’m mad at you!” The best way to calm angry children is to let them know that you understand that they are upset, especially if you can do it in a calm and sympathetic voice. Teachers can do the same when they see kids who are misbehaving. Think of your efforts to help kids be kinder and more empathetic as building their emotional intelligence. Kids who feel understood are less likely to be cruel to others.

Another way to teach kids to be empathetic is to read books together or watch movies or shows together. During parts that involve positive or negative behaviors, ask your kids what they think of the behavior they are seeing, why they think someone may have acted the way they did, and what better ways there might be of handling these situations. This helps kids identify feelings in others and learn healthy ways of expressing themselves.

Teaching kids to be helpful is another powerful tool. Asking nicely for your child to help and thanking them for it—including explaining the positive impact that their help has on you and your relationship with each other—teaches kids that being helpful makes others happy and helps them feel better about themselves. You can also teach kids to offer to help without being asked. This requires a higher level of caring and observation. Most people appreciate an offer of help. It also builds children’s self-esteem of children when they see positive results.

Sharing is another prosocial behavior to encourage, though in the age of COVID-19, one has to be more careful. Asking if someone wants to play with your toys or have some of your snack shows caring. Offering a guest something to eat or drink when they visit you is another skill that kids can learn.

Bullying has received more attention in recent years. You can help kids be kinder by teaching them how to be upstanders. For example, speaking up for a child who is being teased or bullied can go a long way toward effecting positive change. Going up to a child who is sitting alone at lunch and asking if they would like company or to join your table can make a big difference in the life of someone who is ignored for being different or unpopular or who is too shy to ask to sit with others.

Stress levels are higher than ever with the combination of COVID-19, the economic fallout from quarantine and social distancing, distance learning for most students, protests across the country, and the upcoming election in a divided country. Perhaps now more than ever we need to make room for kindness, tolerance, and understanding.

Dr. James J. CristAuthor James Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. Visit his website at

Free Spirit books by James Crist:

SiblingsThe Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends WhatToDoWhenYou'reScaredAndWorriedWhat to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue

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