Dear Kid Whisperer,
How do I teach my 7-year-old kindness? I got very upset because he called his friend “fat”. I’m so disappointed and shocked! I don’t even think he cares he hurt his friend’s feelings. I’m constantly stressing about how we do not name call or use the word “fat” in our house. -Audrey, Cincinnati, Ohio
Getting your kid to be kind for a lifetime may be the most important contribution to humanity that you will ever make. Your kid will hopefully be on this earth for a good long while, and he will have a profound opportunity to create a tremendous amount of good, or do a fantastic amount of damage to people and our world.
I get nervous when people talk about “teaching” being kind, because this can sometimes (though not always) mean that you want to lecture your kid after he has been unkind. As a kid, I never listened to lectures about how I should act. I still don’t. Most kids don’t either. This is exponentially more true when both parent and kid are upset/scared/frustrated immediately after a negative behavior has been used. While teaching lessons about empathy and kindness via children’s books and other means can be somewhat effective, it needs to be done when all is well and never immediately after a kid has already been mean.
Here are two ways to get your kid to be kind and empathetic:
Modeling: As any teacher can tell you, adult jerks tend to reproduce tiny little jerks, who then grow to be bigger jerks. If you treat people poorly in front of your kid, that’s what he will do. You already know this. I know that you know this because you took the time to ask me this question. I am only including this part of the answer on the off chance that someone else might read this. To the mean, obnoxious jerks out there: if you already have children, please don’t have any more.
Consequences: If your kid is calling people fat in front of you, you will almost definitely need consequences. The next time your kid is outwardly cruel to another person, (according to your value structure), be really sad about it, and tell him that you will have to do something later. Remove your kid from the situation if appropriate. Then, hours or a few days later, when all is well, sadly and calmly have a conversation similar to the following:
Kid Whisperer: Gadzooks. It made me so sad when you called Jonathan “fat”. Right now, you are really struggling with being kind.
Kid: I will do whatever I want, and you will have to deal with it, peasant.
Kid Whisperer: Gadzooks. There you go again. It is important for you to learn to be kind before you leave this house when you turn 18. I apologize. I think I may have made some parenting mistakes. Starting today, I’m going to give you the opportunity to practice being kind.
Kid: Wait. What’s going on? It seems as though trouble is afoot.
Kid Whisperer: Gadzooks. From now on you will spend all of your free time with me here at home until you can show me, here at home, that you are an expert at being kind all of the time, with everyone. I will know whether or not you are a kindness expert by how well you treat me and the rest of your family.
Kid: But I have a baseball game tomorrow!
Kid Whisperer: Gadzooks. All activities are cancelled until you become a kindness expert. If you work really hard at this and become a kindness expert right away, you can rejoin the world soon. If you don’t become a kindness expert, I guess you will be able to do whatever you want when you leave the house when you turn 18. I’ll love you no matter what.