Debbie Granick is a parent/childbirth educator and freelance writer. She received a Masters in Social Work and a Masters in Public Health, specializing in Maternal and Child Health, from the University of North Carolina. Her previous work includes counseling adolescents and their families in a substance abuse prevention program, teaching tobacco education and reproductive health in a school setting, and consulting with local child care staff on toddler discipline strategies.

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The Secret to Raising A Nice Kid

We all want to raise “the nice kid,” the one who invites the new student over and refrains from ridiculing the smelly kid. I thought I was doing all right at this until last weekend.

I got out of bed sporting a Nyquil hang-over and hacking out my lungs with bronchitis. Within seconds, I was surrounded: “Mom, can I have hot chocolate?” “Can you help me with Science Fair?” “I can’t find my jeans.” Are my kids completely self-absorbed? Does it not cross their mind to bring me a cup of tea, much less ask if I’m okay? Who took my nice children and replaced them with these heathens?

There’s a universal ingredient in nice kids. It’s empathy, the ability to understand another’s feelings and be “checked in” to the emotions of people around them. Empathetic kids are able to imagine how another person feels and respond appropriately.

We’re not born empathic. We learn it. “Infants and toddlers are naturally self-centered,” says Dr. Beril Ulku-Steiner, a Developmental Psychologist at the University of North Carolina. “But as kids mature, things should shift. Empathy is a highly teachable skill. If empathy is taught and modeled in early childhood, older kids should be able to read emotional cues and know when someone’s feelings are getting hurt. Some kids are more empathic than others, which may be genetic. But it’s also a result of coaching.”

Empathy does more than make kids nice. “Children with a capacity for empathy have better relationships and even perform better at school” says Dr. Paul Coleman, author of How to Say It to Your Kids. And if you’re not sold yet, Dr. Laura Padilla Walker, a Developmental Psychologist at Brigham Young University, adds that “children who don’t develop empathy can become callous adults, oblivious to the hurt and pain they leave in their wake.”

Learning empathy happens over hundreds of interactions and observations, many of the most powerful ones being with parents. Dr. Walker’s top three suggestions for teaching empathy: model it, tutor it, and don’t push it beyond what’s reasonable for each child.

Children learn to respond empathically to others if their parents respond that way to them. An empathic response is one that comforts the child and acknowledges his emotion. Parents may not like the behavior, and it may need to be discussed later, but at the moment of distress, Dad or Mom can be supportive and compassionate. So when your son trip on the shoes he left in the middle of the floor. You say, “Ouch. Can I help you up,” and save the “pick-up-your-shoes” lecture for later.

Children also learn empathy through coaching, teaching them exactly how to recognize and respond to emotion. When I recovered from the “I need, I need” attack of my children, I talked to them about how to respond when someone feels ill. I asked, “What makes you feel better when you’re sick?” “What are things you could do to help someone who is feeling bad?”

When I’m cooking a meal for an ill friend, I include my kids and explain why we’re helping. If I see a person with a crying child in the grocery line, I’ll say “That mommy is having a hard time. Let’s let her go first.” Empathy coaching may feel like stating the obvious. But kids often miss emotional signals. You’re teaching them to notice the needs of people around them.

Parents can use each other as springboards for coaching empathy. “Daddy just asked you to put on your pajamas and you’re still dressed. I bet he feels ignored. Would you like it if you asked Mom or Dad to read you a book and we ignored you?” Rather than just disciplining the behavior (which may happen as well), the goal is to encourage your kids to think about how their behavior effects someone else.

You can also point out how good it feels when someone shows empathy towards your child or family. Did someone share lunch with your child when he forgot his? Bring your family a meal after you had a new baby?

People watching, both in real-life and on T.V., is great empathy coaching. At a mall, take note of people’s feelings. “That little boy looks so sad. Could we do anything to help?” Discuss how a TV character might feel about how she’s being treated or how a TV conflict could have been handled differently.

Kids help each other learn empathy as well. “You don’t want to intervene in every sibling squabble, says Dr. Walker, the BYU Professor, but “sibling relationships are prime areas where parents can help children learn about emotions and how to respond.” Look at arguments as opportunities to teach about turn-taking, imagining how others are feeling, compromise, fairness. Most kids enjoy role plays, which prepare them to apply empathy skills in the outside world. Help them make up skits about helping a friend, apologizing, stopping an argument, reaching out to a new student. Empathy skills take practice. The pay off comes when you see them avoid hitting, biting, name-calling, and other not-the-nice-kid responses.

Children can’t be coached to show empathy in ways that are uncomfortable for them. A child’s personality plays a significant role in their empathic responses. “A naturally shy child probably won’t be the one to stand up for someone who’s being picked on,” says Dr. Walker. A child who doesn’t get hurt easily may never be the first to ask if an injured friend is okay. Let kids show empathy in their own way. My friend’s daughter, reserved by nature, felt unable to confront a child who was being mean to animals, but was able to write a note to her teacher about it instead.

Coaching empathy is about seizing teachable moments. It’s about asking, “How do you think he feels? How do you feel? What might make that person feel better?” And it’s about asking these questions again and again and again.

I’ve been working all this myself and I’m enjoying my little fantasy that the next time I’m sick, my kids will bring me tea, put me in bed, and act like angels while I sleep for the rest of the day. Ah, the joy of nice kids.

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