What Makes Kids Care?
Teaching Gentleness in a Violent World
It seems as though we are surrounded by violence and cruelty. According to
Crime Survey, almost 3 million crimes occur on or near school campuses every
16,000 per school day, or one every 6 seconds. A recent study on domestic
that many high school boys thought it was all right for a boy to strike his
she angered him; meanwhile, during the early 1980's, nearly 17,000 people were
their domestic partners.
In a world where violence and cruelty seem to be common and almost acceptable, a
parents wonder what they can do to help their children become 'kinder and
develop a sense of caring and compassion for others. Raising kids who care isn't
to violence by itself, but you might worry that being exposed to a lot of
whether it's on television or on the streets -- could make your children 'hard'
Parents, of course, can't completely control all of the things that affect their
lives -- after all, children spend a lot of time out in the 'real world' which
can often be
harsh, uncaring, or just plain unhappy -- and children have their own
characteristics that parents can't change or control. But there are some things
that a parent
can try to help encourage their children to become caring, just and responsible.
Are Children 'Naturally' Caring?
People sometimes think that children don't really 'see' the outside world -- or
other people --
the way adults do, that they view the world from their own eyes and in their own
But is this true?
Researchers used to believe that a sense of real caring about others came as
into adulthood. But now studies are finding that children can show signs of
concern from a very early age.
For example, a study by psychologists Carolyn Zahn-Waxler, Ph.D., Marian Radke-Yarrow,
and Robert King, Ph.D. observed children whose parents were hurt somehow --
(e.g. father having a bad headache) or emotionally (e.g. mother received bad
news and was crying).
They discovered that even very young children had a pretty well-developed sense
They reacted with concern, wanting to help or 'fix' the problem, and they
offered comfort and
compassion to the parent who was hurt.
For instance, one mother had an argument with her husband and began crying. Her
was 21 months old, came and sat on her lap and became very physically
affectionate: 'Then she
leaned over, and kissed me on the forehead. And that just cleared up all the
depression, and I
reached over and hugged her. And then she began to smile, and she looked
It isn't just young children who have these kinds of reactions. And it isn't
just for their
parents that they have these feelings. A few years ago, a twelve-year-old
opened his own shelter for homeless people. Many studies have shown that
children respond quickly
and with concern to a classmate, friend, family neighbor, or to a stranger, who
is being hurt.
It's well known, too, that children have a natural affinity for animals and a
desire to help them.
One study, by Ziporah Magen, Ph.D., and Rachel Aharoni, Ph.D. found that
teenagers who were
involved in helping others felt very positive about their lives and had high
hopes for their
own futures. 'It was a wonderful feeling,' reported one student in this study.
'My feeling as
free as a sparrow made me feel glad and happy and that life is an exciting
What Can Parents Do?
Let them Know How You Feel
The most important thing you can do is to let your children know how much it
means to you that
they behave with kindness and responsibility. When you catch your child doing
something that you
think is thoughtless or cruel, you should let them know right away that you
don't want them doing
that. Speak to your child firmly and honestly, and keep your focus on the act,
not on the child
personally: something along the lines of 'What you did is not very nice' rather
'YOU are not very nice!'
It's important to let you children know how deeply you feel about their behavior
If they see that you have a real emotional commitment to something, it's more
likely that the
issue will become important to them, too. This emotional reaction needs to be
information: some explanation of why you disapprove ; for example, 'Look, Joey
is crying. He's
crying because you took his toy away. That wasn't a very nice thing to do!' or
'It hurts the cat
when you do that; that's why he scratched you. It isn't kind, and I don't want
you to do that anymore!'
Be frank, honest and upfront with your kids about what kind of behavior you do
and don't like.
Also, keep it short and to the point; the idea is to teach them, not the make
them feel guilty!
According to a study by psychologists E. Gil Clary, Ph.D. and Jude Miller,
Ph.D., there are two
kinds of parental role modeling that help teach children to be caring: kindness
to others, and
kindness to the child.
In other words, actions speak louder than words.
If you are consistently caring and compassionate, it's more likely that your
children will be too.
Children watch their parents, and other adults, for clues on how to behave.
Keep in mind that if you say one thing and do another, your children will pay a
lot more attention
to what you do. The old warning 'Do as I say, not as I do' simply does not work,
it comes to teaching about caring.
Not everyone has time to devote to volunteer work or money to donate to causes,
but there are small
acts of caring that can be part of your family's life. These acts of caring
don't have to be grandiose.
Doing a favor for a neighbor, taking a stray animal to a shelter, giving money
and a kind word to a
homeless person, helping out when a group of teenagers are cruelly teasing a
classmate; there are
all kinds of small acts of compassion that you children can watch you do, and
even take part in themselves.
Try to surround your children with other people who are kind and caring, so that
they have several
Another thing you can do is try to find organized ways for your children to get
involved. Let them
know about places in the community where they can volunteer, and encourage them
to join. Many volunteer
organizations and churches have special programs for young people and even for
You and Your Child
If you treat your children with respect for their dignity, with concern and with
regard for their
achievements -- you help them understand that all living creatures should be
treated with dignity
One part of this is to reward your children for acts of kindness. Psychologist
Julius Segal, Ph.D.,
points out that just as it's important to let them know how strongly you feel
about their unkind acts,
it's important to let them know how highly you regard their kind ones. For
instance: 'I saw you take
care of the boy who fell on the playground. That was very kind of you, and it
makes me feel very proud.'
What About Effects of the Outside World
Parents understandably worry that their effort at home can be undermined by
outside influences, such
as their children's friends, daily violence in their own neighborhoods,
television shows and movies,
or a culture that exalts 'heroes' who are selfish.
There are a few things that you can do to help counteract these influences, for
Give them books that promote compassionate behavior. Keep in mind, though, that
kids -- especially
teenagers -- don't like characters who are 'goody-two-shoes,' so look for books
characters who perform acts of caring and concern. A study at the National
Institute of Mental Health
found that children who see kindness on television tend to imitate it. For this
reason, you may want
to limit their viewing of violent programs and encourage them to watch shows
that promote ideas about
caring and helping. Find out about the movies your children want to see: are
they excessively violent,
do they glamorize criminals or people who 'get ahead' at the expense of others,
do they glorify violence
to people or animals? While you can't shield your children from everything, a
little discussion can go a
long way. Ask them to think about what they saw and to consider other approaches
the characters might
have taken. Educate your children about famous altruists. Local museums can
provide an inexpensive and
enjoyable way to do this, as can television specials and books. Talk to them who
they admire, and why.
Can Children Become Too Sensitive?
If your child is confronted with the harsher realities of life everyday, you
might wonder whether it's
a good idea to let then see even more suffering and distress. Other parents
might worry that exposing
kids to a harder side of life that they've never seen could traumatize the
These are understandable fears, and according to some experts, there are cases
when children can become sensitive to the suffering of others. This is
particularly true of children who are already emotionally
Not all giving is healthy for the giver; if a child starts placing the needs of
other above his own,
this could be a sign that perhaps he or she is giving too much.
Several schools have adopted 'caring courses' for children, taking students to
nursing homes and to
help the disabled, and many humane societies have instituted children's
'compassion clubs'. You can
also see numbers of children at political rallies and marches for various
causes. Generally speaking,
children who participate in these activities have not been traumatized; for the
most part, they have
adopted compassion and caring into their everyday lives and feel very rewarded
by the experience. You
as the parent can best judge when your child seems overly distressed.
The Indestructible Link
In the words of Dr. Julius Segal, 'none of the approaches suggested here will
work in the absence of
an indestructible link of caring between parent and child.'
What most inspires a child to grow up caring about others is the caring that the
Experts point out that when children feel a more secure base at home, they're
more likely to venture
out and pay attention to others; it's when they feel deprived of love and
nurturing that they focus on
themselves and their own needs. Furthermore, that nurturing is itself a perfect
role model for children.