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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 4-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. Children ages 3-4 are in the process of learning about themselves, their strengths, and their limitations. Three- and four-year-olds have not only taken notice of other children, they are coming to the realization that play is much more fun when engaged with others. Play grows your child’s social and emotional skills. In social play, kids naturally practice cooperation, negotiation, inclusion, communication, flexibility, conflict management, and kindness.
As children develop their social and emotional skills, they also build their ability to act with kindness. As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you can foster kindness through your relationship with your child and by focusing your attention on helping your child grow these vital skills and through your modeling. The steps below include specific, practical strategies to prepare you.
Your child’s ability to show kindness and get along with and play with others can shape their experiences at the park, in playgroups, and at preschool or childcare. You can offer them support as they exercise their newly forming social awareness and relationship skills.
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 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
Three-to-four-year olds are highly active and exploratory, seeking moments for imaginative play. They now can view themselves as a whole person with a body, mind, and spirit but are still learning to identify their big feelings. Your child is gaining skills in cooperating with others, showing empathy, and working through conflict with pretend play. Paying close attention to your child’s facial expressions, body movements, words, and sounds helps you better understand what they are trying to communicate. Your efforts to learn from your child builds trust and creates empathetic interactions that demonstrate kindness. In becoming sensitive to the small differences in your child’s verbal and non-verbal language, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and their sense of healthy relationships;
- are offering greater motivation for you and your child to work together;
- are deepening 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 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.”
- “Did you think what that person did for you was kind? How did it make you feel?”
- When reading books, look at the images of children or animals and guess the feelings by asking “What do you think this character is thinking? What do you think that character 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.
- If your child is feeling unsure about how others are feeling — or is buried in their own feelings — consider asking questions like:
- “What do you notice the other child is feeling?”
- “What does their face look like?”
- “What does their voice sound like? How are they moving?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent of a young child, there is a lot to learn about understanding a 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 a parent better understand what their child is going through.1
- 3-4-year-olds are copying or mimicking adult words and actions.
- 3-4-year-olds are growing in their sense of empathy for others and will attempt to comfort another crying child and will show affection for others without prompting.
- 3-4-year-olds can carry a conversation offering two to three sentences but do not yet have a full feelings vocabulary to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. A feelings vocabulary takes longer to develop.
- 3-4-year-olds are eager to engage in pretend play by themselves and cooperatively with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- 3-4-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- 3-4-year-olds are able to show a wider range of feelings.
- 3-4-year-olds are beginning to notice differences including culture and race, making it a critical time to discuss inclusion and the essential nature of different perspectives in order to learn.
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 you are smiling while playing that game. You look happy.”
- 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 feeling sad right now because our friends can’t meet us for a playdate. Can you tell? I am frowning.”
- 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.”
- Grow empathetic thinking. In addition to growing these essential skills that help your child learn kindness, there are beliefs and attitudes that you can promote to contribute to your child’s thinking. For example, when your child points a blaming finger saying “he did it!” you could say:
- “What do you think he’s feeling?”
- “What choice would you make if you were feeling sad or hurt?”
- “What do you think could make him feel better?”
Don’t tell your child what they feel; ask instead. Three-and-four-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, Grow 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 day care, 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 let your friend choose a snack first. That was 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 character to give his friend a high-five for doing a good job playing the game.” 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 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 say kind words to your sister when she is helping you.”
- 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 a new person. Children often need more time to adjust with new individuals. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to warm up to the new person. 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 offered your friend a chance to join the game 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 scared or shy when encountering others on the playground but seems perfectly content today, notice their newfound comfort. “I notice you are feeling happy making new friends on the playground today!”
- 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, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.