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Real Talk: Talking with teens about kindness - a doctor's perspective

Dr. Paul Schwartz perspective

Talking with teens about kindness

Get another perspective. See how a mom answers the same question.

We raise our children based on our own philosophy regarding what it takes to succeed in today’s postmodern world. If you feel that the world your child is in is a cold “dog-eat-dog” environment, you will raise your child to be tough and hard, only thinking about themselves. If your philosophy is the converse, you will raise your child to be empathic and kind. If empathy and kindness in your children is your goal as a parent, helping them learn that empathy is trying to understand what another person is feeling and how important that concept is, what follows may be of use to you. If you think to possess and display empathy and kindness are important, you are not alone.

“If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” – Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

“Learning to stand in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, that’s how peace begins. And it’s up to you to make that happen. Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” – Barack Obama

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives.” - Oprah Winfrey

As parents we make sure our children learn how to read and write, and yet, we often assume children will naturally develop skills like kindness and empathy.

People often confuse empathy with sympathy and compassion, but there are subtle differences. Sympathy means recognizing someone’s emotions, but empathy takes it a step further. With empathy, you feel the same emotion as the other person because you can imagine yourself in their place. And compassion takes this further, still. When you are compassionate, you feel the need to act on another’s emotions to help relieve their suffering.

Why kindness and empathy matter. At their essence, kindness and empathy mean having concern for others and being able to show that concern through our actions. Just like for adults, kindness is important for kids’ social connections and well-being.

Children who are empathic are better able to cope with conflict and difficult social situations. They also are likely to engage in bullying behavior, and more likely to jump in and help a friend or peer who is being bullied. Children who are empathic are more likely to grow into well-adjusted adults with adaptive coping skills.

People who are skilled at feeling empathy and compassion are better leaders, better entrepreneurs, better parents, and better friends. A child who learns empathy and compassion grows into an adult with the kind of full, successful life every parent hopes their child will lead.

As you try to raise a respectful child keep in mind that respect for oneself and others is the foundation on which a healthy and successful life is built. The obstacles to learning respect are far too numerous in our “selfie” centered society. With all we do for our kids—and I’m no exception—they can be left feeling entitled rather than respectful and empathic toward others.

It’s important to start teaching your children at an early age to be respectful toward individuals of the opposite sex, of different religious backgrounds, of different skin colors and that understanding the world goes beyond the selfie and that the universe is bigger than the culture we were raised with.

It’s important for us to foster empathy skills in our children so they can learn to care about other people’s viewpoints. The best way to teach your children empathy is for you to model empathy towards them. Feeling what another person feels by imagining yourself in their position is the key component of empathy.

In a sense, empathy is the most straightforward of these skills to teach. Many parents do it naturally. How many times have you chastised your child for doing something to someone else by saying, “How would you feel if that other person did that to you?”

The first step in teaching kindness and empathy is us; that is, parents. We are the first model of respect—or the lack of it—that introduces children to the art of how to act to others.

Children learn empathy from watching us and experiencing our empathy for them. When we empathize with our children, they develop trusting, secure attachments with us. Those attachments are key to their wanting to adopt our values and to model our behavior, and therefore to building their empathy for others.

READ MORE: What is kindness

Empathizing with our children takes many forms, including tuning in to their physical and emotional needs, understanding and respecting their individual personalities, taking a genuine interest in their lives, and guiding them toward activities that reflect an understanding of the kind of people they are and the things they enjoy.

Children also learn empathy by watching those we notice and appreciate. They’ll notice if we treat a server in a restaurant or a mail carrier as if they’re invisible. On the positive side, they’ll notice if we welcome a new family in our child’s school or express concern about another kid in our child’s class that is experiencing a challenge.

Parents teach children more through their actions and behaviors than through their words. Children form ideas and model gender roles and identities by observing important adults around them. The way parents speak to each other and the roles they play at home will significantly influences the attitudes and behaviors of children. 

For instance, if a boy consistently observes his father treating his mother disrespectfully, he is likely to believe that such behavior is acceptable and that is applicable to all women. He will most likely treat girlfriends in adolescence similarly.

Do you make fun of strangers? Do you talk badly about your relatives or friends when they aren’t there? Do you treat your spouse, pets or even kids in a degrading fashion sometimes? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If you tell your child to be kind and think about others—but you are modeling negative, unkind behavior—your words will have little impact on their behavior. Children do as they see, not as you tell them to do. Be a wonderful role model for your child.


Pick your child up when he falls, discuss his feelings and let him know that you’ve felt that way too. Listen to your children. Instead of walking away from that temper tantrum, stay calm and talk your child through it. When children see you respond to difficult situations with empathy, they will internalize those behaviors and learn to do the same.

Kids are more likely to develop empathy when their emotional needs are being met at home. Children and adolescents need to feel heard and helped when things are hard. When children have secure attachments with their parents, they are more likely to show empathy toward others. Give them the gift of security. Feeling someone else's pain is unpleasant, so it shouldn't surprise us if a child's first impulse is to shrink away. 

Children are more likely to overcome this impulse when they feel secure. When children have secure attachment relationships with their caregivers, they know they can count on their caregivers for emotional and physical support. And these children are more likely to sympathize and offer help to people in distress.


You teach them how to get dressed, you teach them how to put on their shoes, and you teach them how to brush their teeth. But have you taught them how to identify their feelings? Label their feelings for them (positive and negative) so that they can connect feelings and words with emotional reactions. It’s nearly impossible to understand how another person feels if you can’t even understand how you feel yourself.


When your child’s behavior is affecting those around them, point it out. Let your child know how they are affecting others without shaming them. Teach your children the joys of helping others. Be an example for your children and help strangers, friends and family. Let them know that it feels good to help others, even if you get nothing back. Set up opportunities for you to help others as a family.


Teach your child that even small acts of kindness go a long way. Express to your child why you are holding the door for another person, letting someone get in front of you in traffic or helping someone whose hands are full. Explain that it is nice to be helpful, even if the person doesn’t say thank you or appreciate it. You should give to give, not give to get. Recognize kindness when it occurs and praise your children for it.

Expose your children to the joys of volunteering. Don’t worry that introducing kids to life's harsher realities will be upsetting. In fact, the reverse is true. When you expose children to the sufferings of others, they end up feeling grateful for what they have and proud of being able to help someone.

Whether you take small or big actions, offer help to people or animals, there is always a way to lend a hand. Involving kids in volunteer work teaches them that it feels good to be helpful. You might collect garbage from the park, visit a local retirement home, or clean out your closets to donate to those in need. Perhaps your kids will be inspired to fund-raise for a good cause. There is no limit to how to teach empathy and kindness.

Choose books and stories with themes of kindness and empathy. There are many great stories to choose from. Stories are a powerful and highly influential way for kids to learn without direct teaching. Read stories out loud to younger children to invoke their imaginations. 

For older children, stock their reading list with plenty of kind role models. If you observe someone in distress (in real life, on TV, or in a book), talk with your child about how that person must be feeling. Even a brief conversation could have a big effect.

Help kids discover what they have in common with other people. Adults tend to feel greater empathy for an individual when they perceive the individual to be like them. They also find it easier to empathize with someone who is familiar. One of the best ways to encourage empathy is to make children conscious of what they have in common with others.

Studies also suggest that schools boost empathy in students when they foster multiculturalism, an inclusive, warm attitude about cultural diversity. Moreover, enhanced empathy is linked with increased happiness and scholastic achievement.

Random acts of kindness can be anything that will make someone's day a little brighter. Being kind to others feels good. It helps take our attention off our own troubles and creates a feeling of interconnectedness.

Each act of kindness makes a difference. Even the smallest gesture of kindness communicates to someone that we respect and value them. Through kindness, we can encourage our children to be a force for good and change in the world.

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