How Children Spread Kindness

Key Takeaways

  • Kindness grows over time. Children show more kind behaviors as they develop emotion regulation and cognitive skills.
  • Role modeling and discussing kind behaviors helps children value and practice kindness.
  • Engaging in pretend play helps children practice social skills that are precursors to kindness.

It's no secret that a kinder world is a happier world. In fact, research shows that people who regularly practice kindness report feeling greater life satisfaction.1 Just be kind and then you will be happy; easy, right?

Children actually show signs of kindness as early as in infancy.2 However, like many desired skills and qualities, the development of kindness takes time and grows with continued modeling and practice.

For example, children need to feel confident that their own needs will be met before they can show regard and compassion for others. This explains why children with more developed emotion regulation skills are more likely to act prosocially.3

Research on close parent-child relationships and children's emotion regulation have found this association time and time again -- when a child is in a secure relationship with a parent or caregiver, they use that relationship as a secure base from which they can safely explore the social world.4 This supports children's emotion regulation skills, which in turn enables them to act in empathetic and caring ways to others.

What Does Kindness Look Like at Different Ages

3-4 years

  • Eager to socialize with others. However, they are still pretty egocentric. For example, they may appear to ignore another child or fail to recognize someone else's needs because they are so focused on their current situation. Their current needs and wants take ultimate precedence. That's normal for their age; not "unkind."5
  • May express kindness indirectly or through body language such as: giving someone a hug, pretending to play a "helper" role, or sharing space with others.
  • Feel more motivated to share with other children, but because they are still somewhat egocentric, they will share less-preferred toys over their favorite toys.5

4-5 years

  • Begin to verbally, and more directly, communicate kindness to others. This could look like: bringing a toy to a crying child, helping someone lift a heavy object, saying "thank you," or finding a lost mitten.
  • DDiscovering what friendship is and building social problem solving skills.6

5-6 years


  • Express kindness verbally. For example telling a friend, "That's a really cool drawing" or "I hope you feel better soon."
  • Connect others' actions to their own feelings. They start to understand that when other people are kind to them, it feels good!
  • Are still figuring out social relationships while developing their own confidence and awareness, so you can expect some inconsistencies. For example, children at this age may look "kind" in one moment and "self-focused" in the next.
  • Show more complexity in their choices to be kind.7 They might choose to share or play with some children over others for a variety of reasons.

Here are some ways to encourage kindness in children:

  • Model kindness in your own life. As simple as it sounds, let your child see you be kind to yourself, to others, and to the earth!
  • Identify kindness when you see it. Go beyond saying "That was kind." Instead, identify the specific kindness-promoting acts that you observed. For example, try saying: "That was kind of you to scoot over for your friend. You noticed that they needed space, and you gave it to them!"
  • Talk about kindness. For young children, abstract thinking skills are still developing. Help them to create a definition of kindness by tying the word to real-life examples.
  • Play pretend! Many role-playing scenarios that young children love to engage in foster kindness and help children to develop social skills. Some examples include: caregiving and nurture play with dolls, cooking for each other in a pretend kitchen, rescue or firefighter play, and caring for a patient by playing doctor.
  • Help children reflect on the way kind actions make them feel. How does it feel when others are kind to them? How does it feel when they are kind to others?
  • Talk to your child about other people's feelings. Saying please, thank you, and "I'm sorry" don't always equal kindness for young children, as satisfying as these statements can be for adults to hear. Rather than asking your child to say sorry as a way to teach kindness, try talking to them about the other person's feelings.

References

  1. Buchanan, K.E. & Bardi, A. (2010). Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology, 150(3), 235-237.
  2. Paulus, M. (2014). The emergence of prosocial behavior: Why do infants and toddlers help, comfort, and share? Child Development Perspectives, 8(2), 77-81.
  3. Song, J.H., Colasante, T., & Malti, T. (2018). Helping yourself helps others: Linking children's emotion regulation to prosocial behavior through sympathy and trust. Emotion, 18(4), 518-527.
  4. Gross, J. T., Stern, J. A., Brett, B. E., & Cassidy, J. (2017). The multifaceted nature of prosocial behavior in children: Links with attachment theory and research. Social Development, 26(4), 661-678.
  5. Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., & Spinrad, T. L. (2006). Prosocial Development. In Handbook of Child Psychology: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, Vol. 3, 6th ed (pp. 646-718). John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  6. Howes, C. (1996).The earliest friendships. In W. M. Bukowski, A. F. Newcomb, & W. W. Hartup (Eds.), The Company They Keep: Friendship in Childhood and Adolescence (pp. 66-86). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R. A., & Spinrad, T. L. (2006). Prosocial Development. In Handbook of Child Psychology: Social, Emotional, and Personality Development, Vol. 3, 6th ed (pp. 646-718). John Wiley & Sons Inc.
  8. Flook, L., Zahn-Waxler, C., & Davidson, R. J. (2019). Developmental differences in prosocial behavior between preschool and late elementary school. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

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