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Cookies and milk. Bert and Ernie. Discipline and kindness? That last pairing may sound like a less-than-dynamic duo—who wants to “punish” a kid into being good?—but the two go hand in hand. “The word discipline comes from the Latin word for ‘instruction,’” says Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of How to Raise Kind Kids . “In a character-based approach to parenting, discipline is used to teach habits like kindness and respect.” To be truly effective, it takes a multipronged plan with consequences that differ from the same old time-outs and talking-tos.
little girl with stocking hat over her eyes scrunching up her face
Credit: Daymion Mardel
Set clear expectations.
It’s not so much laying ground rules, per se, as creating a mission statement that establishes kindness as a nonnegotiable part of your family’s ethos. “Have a talk about what you stand for,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World . You can even come up with a cute motto like “We’re the Caring Carlsons!”
Reinforce those values.
Look for opportunities to discuss that ethos—pointing out scenarios that crop up in movies, books, and real life—so your kids develop a concept of what’s considered OK. If one cartoon character hurts another, talk about the implications and why it’s not acceptable. (The kids may not love the interruption, but trust that they do hear you.) Be sure to practice what you preach: If you sing the praises of altruism but then hulk out on anyone who cuts the carpool line, your brood’s not gonna buy in.
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With a solid framework in place, you’re armed to correct missteps. Whether your child mistreats you, a sibling, a peer, or the family pet, address the behavior swiftly and definitively. “Use a strong, firm, non-yelling statement that spells out what went wrong,” Dr. Borba explains. “Say, ‘That was unkind. You just pulled your friend’s hair. How do you think she feels? How would you feel if that happened to you?’”
Appeal to their empathy.
Even as kids mature and unkind acts become more verbal and less physical, explaining that they’ve hurt someone is still your best move. “Most kids don’t set out to do harm,” says J. Kiley Hamlin, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who studies child behavior. “If they’re able to grasp what they’re doing to the other person, the cost becomes greater than the benefit to them.”
Help them make amends.
Of course, acknowledgment isn’t enough; restitution is also in order. “Kids need to learn that when they do something wrong, they do something to make up for it,” Dr. Lickona says. “First, they should apologize, then ask, ‘What can I do to make it better?’” You can help brainstorm—maybe they’ll end up writing an “I’m sorry” card or use allowance money to replace a smashed toy—but they’ll often hit the mark themselves. In some cases, it may be enough to request a redo: “Can you please try that again in a kinder, more respectful way?”
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Depending on the seriousness of the incident, an additional punishment may be required to make a lasting impression. Avoid the impulse to leverage whatever they hold dear, like screen time or dessert, in favor of a tailored response. (If big brother pushed little brother off a bike, then it tracks that his own wheels should be taken away; banning video games is just arbitrary.) It's the classic "make the punishment fit the crime" approach, and it works. "The consequence should be relevant in both kind and strength," Dr. Hamlin cautions. "If it's unfair, random, or unnecessarily punitive, it could backfire."
Tell them they’re good.
No matter what, keep reiterating how kindhearted your kids are, even in the bleakest of moments; the message will sink in. “Tell them, ‘You are a kind person, and that wasn’t kind,’” Dr. Borba says. “Ultimately, kids will act the way they see themselves to be.”
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2020 issue as “But What Do I Do When My Kid is Unkind?” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here