Children are not simply born good or bad and we should never give up on them. A good person is something one can always become; throughout life we can develop our capacities for caring and fairness as well as many other social, emotional, and ethical capacities. But children need adults to help them at every stage of childhood to become caring and ethical. We should work to develop children’s concern for others because it’s fundamentally the right thing to do, but, in addition, when children can empathize with and take responsibility for others, they’re likely to be happier and more successful. They’ll have better relationships their whole lives, and strong relationships are a key ingredient of happiness. In today’s workplace, success often depends on collaborating effectively with others, and children who have empathy for other people and social awareness are also better collaborators.
Based on research and our various organizations’ experiences working with families, we recommend the following six broad principles as a set of guideposts to raising caring, respectful, and ethical children. We also provide sample practical tips for how parents might support each principle.
Download full list of tips (102KB pdf)
1. Be a strong moral role model and mentor
Children learn ethical values and behaviors by watching our actions and the actions of other adults they respect.
Being a moral role model and mentor means paying close attention to whether we are practicing honesty, fairness, and caring ourselves and modeling skills like solving conflicts peacefully and managing anger and other difficult emotions effectively. It doesn’t mean being perfect all the time. It’s important for us to model for children how to acknowledge and work on our mistakes and flaws. Children will also only want to become like us if they trust and respect us. That’s why it’s important to ask ourselves whether children respect us and, if we think they don’t, to consider why and how we might repair the relationship.
- Regularly engage in community service or model for children other ways of contributing to a community. Even better, consider doing this with your child.
- Talk with your child when you make a mistake that affects them about why you think you made it and how you plan to avoid making the mistake next time.
2. Make caring for others a priority and set high ethical expectations
It’s important that children hear from their parents that caring about others is a top priority and that it is just as important as their happiness. Even though most parents say that their children being caring is a top priority, often children aren’t hearing that message.
A big part of prioritizing caring is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honoring their commitments, doing the right thing even when it is hard, standing up for important principles of fairness and justice, and insisting that they’re respectful, even if it makes them unhappy.
- Consider the daily messages you send to children about the importance of caring. For example, instead of saying to children “The most important thing is that you’re happy,” we might say “The most important thing is that you’re kind and that you’re happy.”
- Try to emphasize the importance of caring when interacting with other key adults in your children’s lives. For example, ask teachers whether your children are good community members at school in addition to asking about their academic skills and grades.
- Before letting your child quit a sports team, band, or a friendship, ask them to consider their obligations to the group or the friend and encourage them to work out problems.
3. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude
A good person is something one can always become, but that doesn’t happen on its own. Children need practice caring for others and being grateful—it’s important for them to express appreciation for the many people who contribute to their lives. Studies show that people who engage in the habit of expressing gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving—and they’re also more likely to be happy and healthy.
Learning to be grateful and caring is in certain respects like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetition—whether it’s a helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, having a classroom job, or routinely reflecting on what we appreciate about others—and increasing challenges make caring and gratitude second nature and develop and hone children’s caregiving capacities.
- Expect children to routinely help, for example, with household chores, and only praise uncommon acts of kindness. When these kinds of routine actions are simply expected and not rewarded, they’re more likely to become ingrained.
- Start conversations with children about the caring and uncaring acts they’re seeing in their daily lives or on television and about acts of justice and injustice they might witness or hear about in the news.
- Consider making expressing gratitude a daily ritual at dinnertime, bedtime, in the car, or on the subway. Encourage children to express appreciation for family members, teachers, or some of the many other people who contribute to their lives.
4. Expand your child’s circle of concern
Almost all children empathize with and care about a small circle of families and friends. Our challenge is help children learn to have empathy and care about someone outside that circle, such as a new child in class, someone who doesn’t speak their language, the school custodian, or someone who lives in a distant country.
It is important that children learn to zoom in, listening closely and attending to those in their immediate circle, and to zoom out, taking in the big picture and considering the many perspectives of the people they interact with daily, including those who are vulnerable. They also need to consider how their decisions, such as breaking a school rule, can set a precedent, rippling out and impacting various members of their communities. Especially in our more global world, it’s important for children to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.
- Encourage children to consider the feelings of those who may be vulnerable, such as a new child at school or a child experiencing a divorce or some other family trouble. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the “caring and courage zone,” like comforting a classmate who was teased.
- Use newspaper or TV stories to start conversations with children about other people’s hardships and challenges, or simply the different experiences of children in another country or in communities very different from yours.
5. Help children become ethical thinkers and leaders
Children are naturally interested in ethical questions and they often want to take leadership to improve their communities. They want to be forces of good. Many of the most impressive programs to build caring and respect and to stop bullying and cruelty, for example, have been started by children and youth. As parents, we can encourage children and youth to take leadership in creating more caring and responsible communities.
You can help children become ethical thinkers and leaders by listening to and helping them think through their ethical dilemmas, such as “Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her?” You can also discuss with them acts of justice and injustice in the world. At the same time, you can provide opportunities for your children to fight against injustice in their communities and to strengthen their communities in other ways.
- Start a conversation about ethical dilemmas that arise on TV shows or give children ethical dilemmas to grapple with at meal times or in other situations.
- Provide opportunities for children to join causes, whether it’s reducing homelessness, preventing bullying, or supporting girls’ education in developing countries.
6. Help children develop self-control and manage feelings effectively
Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings.
We can teach children that all feelings are ok, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways.
- A simple way to help children to manage their feelings is to practice three easy steps together: stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Try it when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them together.
- Practice with your child how to resolve conflicts. Consider a conflict you or your child witnessed or experienced that turned out badly, and try out with your child different, more constructive ways of responding to the conflict.