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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your 2-year-old child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship while building a foundation of trusting, loving attachment that will develop kindness and contribute to later success in school and life.
Kindness is the ability to act with generosity, care, and consideration. Two-year-olds are actively imitating adults and children and are eager to play with others. Two-year-olds are also beginning to empathize with others — to view thoughts and feelings from another person’s perspective. Children need to learn that their actions have an impact on others around them. This is developed over time and requires a lot of practice. Their ability to get along, show empathy, and create play that is collaborative relies on their growing social and emotional skills.
Two-year-olds build these skills through loving interactions with you and your responses to their needs. In fact, as children develop their social and emotional skills, they also build their ability to act with kindness. Kindness is learned through the trusting relationship you work to develop with your child. As you respond to your child’s needs, showing care and love, your child experiences your care as kindness and learns through your modeling. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you.
Children learn about who they are and how they relate to others through sensitive, caring interactions with you. These interactions impact their ability to learn about and manage their feelings and to trust in you as a caregiver. Your focus on kindness with your child will lay a critical foundation of trusting interactions.
Today, in the short term, focusing on kindness can create
- greater opportunities for connection, cooperation, and enjoyment;
- trust in each other; and
- a sense of wellbeing and motivation to engage.
Tomorrow, in the long term, focusing on kindness with your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and a belief in self;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
Five Steps for Teaching Kindness
This five-step process helps you and your child to grow skills in kindness. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Intentional communication and actively building a healthy parent relationship will support these steps.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Two-year-olds may use short phrases to communicate and may end up frustrated that they don’t know all of the words to express how they are feeling. Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate.
Your efforts to learn from your child build trust and create empathetic interactions that demonstrate kindness and let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking. In paying attention and noting small differences in your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- show them that they can trust you to notice how they feel;
- let them know that you will help them face challenges;
- deepen your ability to communicate with one another; and
- are modeling empathy.
- Simple questions can be conversation starters to engage your child in learning about kindness. Asking your child questions also tells them that you care about what they think and how they feel. Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child questions and provide help with prompts as needed so they can be successful.
- “What do you notice? I notice…”
- “How do you feel? I feel…”
- “I wonder if the other person feels sad because their head is down. How do you think they might feel?”
- “What are you wondering? I am wondering what happens next.”
- When reading books, look at the images of children or animals and guess the feelings by asking questions like, “What do you think the frog is thinking? What do you think the fish is feeling?”
- Practicing naming feelings will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s sense of relationships and ability to be kind. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through.1
- Two-year-olds are increasingly aware of their individuality. They develop the understanding that they can have their own thoughts and feelings and someone else could have different thoughts and feelings. This is key for beginning to empathize with a thought or feeling that is different from their own such as, “Why is my friend sad because I got to eat all of the cookies?”
- Two-year-olds are eager to engage in imaginative play and, at times, cooperative play with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- Two-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- Two-year-olds can recognize common feelings like happiness, sadness, and anger.
- Two-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- Two-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Model kindness while interacting with your child. Modeling kindness can be one of the greatest teaching tools.
- Share the focus. As you spend time with your child, follow their lead. As they pick up new toys or explore a different part of the room, notice and name what they are exploring.2
- Notice gestures and listen for thought and feeling. Attempt to figure out what your child is trying to tell you through their sounds, gestures, and facial expressions. When they are expressing a feeling on their face or through their body, name it. “I noticed your face is red and your mouth is frowning. You look angry.”
- Children require your attention to thrive. So, why not build a special time into your routine when you are fully present to listen to what your child has to tell you? Turn off your phone. Set a timer if needed. Then, notice your body language. Ask yourself, “What is my body communicating, and how am I demonstrating that I am listening?”
- Read and “pretend play” together.
- During reading time, select a book of faces to help your child learn to identify the different feelings of other children. Point out how you can tell what each child is feeling. Practice recreating those cues with your child.
- After reading a story together, act out the plot and use feeling words and expressions to match how the characters were feeling throughout the story. This expands their feelings vocabulary and teaches them how to recognize a wide range of perspectives and feelings that they might not encounter in day-to-day interactions with others.
- Make your thinking and feelings explicit. Talk about how you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what signs you are giving (even when it’s not a comfortable feeling). “I am happy right now because my friend just called me to say hello, and I haven’t talked to him in a long time. Can you tell? I am smiling.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “I’m going to take a few deep breaths before trying again and see if that helps.”
Don’t tell your child what they feel; ask instead. Two-year-olds are striving for independence and may create a power struggle if you are too direct about their thoughts and feelings. You might say, “You look angry. Is that right?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Develop Kindness, and Develop Habits
Your daily conversations can be opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. Each time your child works hard to practice kindness, they grow vital new brain connections that strengthen and eventually form habits.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy — a child’s sense that they can do a task or skill successfully. This leads to confidence. It will also help them understand that mistakes are part of learning.
- Provide opportunities for your child to meet and interact with other children and people of all ages, races, and cultures. Point out commonalities, make connections, and also discuss how differences help us learn more about ourselves and others.
- Model warm greetings and be certain to introduce your child and facilitate a greeting with any new individuals. Share one thing you know or love about that person with your child to make a caring connection.
- When out in your community while running errands with your child, make introductions and involve your child in conversations with neighbors, the bank teller, or the grocery cashier.
- If your child is in childcare, be sure and create caring, trusting connections with the caregivers alongside your child.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I noticed how you shared your favorite toy with your friend. That is kind of you.”
- Read together. When you read stories together, you engage in an activity that can be deeply connecting for both of you. Reflect on the story and you will take the learning opportunity one step further. “I think it was kind of the little boy to share his toys.” Involve your child in selecting the book, holding it, and turning the pages to build ownership and interest in reading.
- Many children are born with a cautious or shy temperament and they might not readily warm up to strangers and may show a fear of strangers. Respect that temperament by not forcing interaction and instead, model your own kind interactions with others.
Do not force physical interactions like hugs, high fives, or hand shakes between your child and other new individuals. Teach your young child early that they can control their own physical space and are never obligated to make physical contact with another.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing your child’s skills in kindness, and you are allowing them to practice. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. By providing support, you are reinforcing their ability to be successful and are helping them grow in their ability to show kindness.
- Initially, your child may need active support. Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work hard toward a goal. When a child learns a new skill, they are eager to show it off! “Show me you can share your toys with your friend.”
- Schedule playdates. Playdates can become invaluable practice for your child. Playdates build connections and help your child to practice the skills you’ve taught them.
- Don’t move on quickly if your child shows interest in trying something new. Children often need more time to stick with a challenge or pursue a goal. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain relationship skills over time.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way in promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example,“You gave your friend a stuffed animal when they were crying. That was kind of you.”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you share your toy with your friend, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after it occurs. “I see you offered a toy to your friend. Love seeing that!”
- Recognize and call out when all is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when everything is moving along smoothly. If your child was reluctant to share their snack yesterday but was willing today, notice it. “I notice you shared your snack with your friend today. That was so kind!”
- Build celebrations into your everyday routines. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.