Human development research clearly shows empathy, compassion, and caring are all present as early as life. However, to develop ethical, caring people, children must be supported by adults at every stage of their development.
It’s important to encourage children to care about others. Children who can empathize and take responsibility for others will be happier and more successful. Children will have better relationships throughout their lives. Strong relationships are key to happiness. Today’s success in the workplace often hinges on collaboration. Children who are socially aware and empathic are better collaborators.
Here are some guidelines for raising ethical, caring, and respectful children. These guidelines are supported by many studies as well as the decades-long work of our organizations with families across America.
Your children should be loved and cared for.
When children are treated this way, they learn respect and caring. Children feel loved and become more attached to us when they are treated well. This attachment helps children to be more open to our teachings and values.
Love can take many forms: it may be showing affection, respecting and assisting their individuality, taking an interest in their lives, being kind and supportive, expressing gratitude for their achievements, or simply tending to their physical and psychological needs.
Spend regular time with your children. Regular, emotional time together is important. Parents and caregivers can do this by reading to their children at night or engaging in a shared activity. Instead of allowing it to happen by accident, some parents incorporate one-on-one contact with their children into their weekly plans. For example, you might spend one Saturday afternoon per month doing something that you enjoy with each of your children.
Meaningful conversation. When you are with your child, ask each other questions that will bring out your thoughts, feelings and experiences. Ask questions like:
- “What was your best moment of the day?” What was the hardest part?
- “What are you proud of today?”
- “What is something someone did today for you that was nice?” What was something you did that was nice?
- “What is something you have learned today, in school or out of school?”
To be a role model and mentor for moral character
Children learn about ethical behavior and values by watching what we do and how other adults treat them. When we live up to our promises, children will pay attention.
You should be paying attention to how you act honestly, fairly, and caring. This will help you model skills such as managing anger effectively and solving conflict peacefully. However, no one is perfect. It is important that we model humility, self-awareness and honesty for our children by admitting and correcting our mistakes and failings. Recognizing what may be preventing us from caring for ourselves is also crucial. Do we feel exhausted or stressed? Is it possible that our child presses our buttons in a way that makes caring difficult for us? Remember that children will only desire to be like you if they feel safe and respected. Adults can examine whether their children respect them and, if so, how to repair that relationship.
Service. Volunteering in the community or modeling other ways to help a community is a great way to get involved. You can even do this with your child.
Honesty, humility. When you make a mistake that has an effect on your child, talk to them about it. Then, apologize and discuss how you will avoid repeating the same mistake again.
Talk to others. When you find it difficult to show compassion or important ethical traits like fairness, reflect on your situation and talk to people you trust.
Take care of yourself. You can take time for yourself, whether it’s with friends, walking, praying, or meditating.
Set high ethical standards and make caring for others a priority.
It is important for children to hear their parents and caregivers that caring for others is a top priority. They also need to understand that their happiness is as important as their own. Although most parents and caregivers say their children should be caring, many children don’t hear that message.
Prioritizing care means holding children to high ethical standards, including honoring their promises, doing the right things even when it’s hard, upholding important principles like fairness and justice, and being respectful even if they are unhappy or if others are not.
Clear message. Consider what messages you send your children each day about caring. Instead of telling children, “The best thing is that your happy,” you could say to them, “The most important is that you are kind and that your happy.”
Talking with other important adults in your child’s life will help you prioritize caring. Ask teachers and coaches if your children are good members of the community. Also, inquire about their academic skills, grades or performance.
Encourage your children to “work it all out.” Ask them to think about their obligations to the friends or to the sports group before letting them quit.
Give children opportunities to practice gratitude and caring.
Children should practice being kind and grateful to others. It’s essential for them to show appreciation for all the people in their lives. Research shows that gratitude is a habit that increases generosity, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness. It’s also a better way to feel happy and healthier.
In some ways, learning how to care and be grateful is similar to learning how to play a sport. Daily repetition, whether it’s helping a friend with homework or pitching in around their house, or reflecting on what we value about others, and increasing challenges make caring second nature and help children develop caregiving skills. Family meetings are a great way for children to practice solving family problems like sibling disputes, getting to school on time, or making dinner more enjoyable. While parents and caregivers must always stand firm behind core values like caring and fairness as well as other important aspects of family life, it is possible to make the home more democratic by asking children to share their opinions and listen to them. Participating in family improvement plans with children teaches them perspective-taking skills and problem-solving skills. It also gives them a real responsibility to be co-creators of happy families.
Reliable responsibilities. Expect children to help with chores, siblings, and other household chores, and praise them for their kindnesses. These routine acts are more likely to be ingrained into every day activities than if they are rewarded.
Make justice and caring a central focus. Talk to children about caring and uncaring acts in their day, or on TV. Also talk about injustices and acts of justice they may see or hear about in the news. Ask your children to describe these actions to you and why they are just or not.
Thank you. Make gratitude a daily habit, whether it is at dinnertime, bedtime or in public transport. Encourage your children to show appreciation to teachers and family members who have made a difference in their lives.
Your child’s circle should be expanded.
Nearly all children can empathize and care for a small group of friends and families. We need to help children develop empathy and care for someone outside their circle of friends, whether that’s a new child in school, someone who doesn’t speak their language, the custodian at school, or someone who is from a different country.
It is crucial that children learn how to both zoom in and listen to their immediate surroundings. Children should also consider the impact of their actions on the community. For example, breaking a school rule can make it easier to break other rules. It is important that children also show concern for others, especially in today’s globalized world.
Children facing challenges. Children facing challenges should be encouraged to think about the feelings and perspectives of others, such as new children at school or those in family trouble. You can give children simple ways to take action, such as comforting a friend who is being teased or reaching out for a new student.
Zooming out. Talk to children about the hardships and challenges of others, or the experiences of other children from different countries or communities.
Listening. Listening is key.
Encourage children to become ethical thinkers and change-makers in their community
Children naturally have an interest in ethical questions. Trying to answer these questions can help them determine, for instance, what fairness means, what they owe others and what to do if they have conflicting loyalties. Many children are interested in leadership roles that can improve their communities. Children want to make a difference. Children and youth have started many of the most successful programs to foster caring, respect, and stop bullying and cruelty.
Children can become leaders and ethical thinkers by helping them to think through their own dilemmas. For example, they might ask, “Should my neighbor invite my best friend to my birthday party?” You can also help your children fight injustice in their community and strengthen their communities with other opportunities.
Take action. Encourage your children to take steps against any problems they face, such as cyberbullying and unsafe streets corners.
It’s a great way to get involved. Children should have the opportunity to join causes such as reducing homelessness, supporting girls in education in developing countries, calling out the plights of abused animals or any other area of their interest.
Doing “with” is encouraging children to not only “do for” but also to “do with others,” working with different groups of students to solve community problems.
Talk to your child about what you are thinking. Talk to your child about ethical dilemmas on TV. Give them ethical dilemmas to discuss at mealtimes or in other situations. What can they do if a teacher tells them something negative about another child? If they witness someone cheating or stealing on a test. If they have done something wrong but are scared to tell their parents or caregivers.
Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively.
Sometimes, anger, shame and envy can overwhelm our ability to care for others.
While we can help children understand that feelings are okay, not all methods of dealing with them work. Our help is needed to teach children how to deal with emotions in a productive way.
Identify your feelings. Encourage children to share their most difficult feelings, such as anger, sadness, or frustration.
Three steps to self-control. It is easy to teach children how to control their emotions. Take a deep, controlled breath through your nose, exhale through your mouth and count to five. When your child is calm, you can do it together. Next, if your child is upset, remind them about the steps and work together.
How to resolve conflicts. Discuss with your child how you can resolve conflicts. You can role-play different responses to a conflict that you or your child have witnessed or experienced. Try to achieve mutual understanding–listening to and paraphrasing each other’s feelings until both people feel understood. Talk to your child if you feel a distressing feeling.
Clear limits. Clear boundaries can only be established by exercising authority. Your limits should be explained.
It is hard work to raise a child who is caring, respectful, and ethical. It’s something that all of us can accomplish. No work is more important, or more rewarding.