World Kindness Day: Author Melinda Wenner Moyer on raising a kind kid

·13-min read
Author Melinda Wenner Moyer shares advice on raising kind kids. (Photo: Courtesy photo; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Author Melinda Wenner Moyer shares advice on raising kind kids. (Photo: Courtesy photo; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of child rearing.

The title of Melinda Wenner Moyer's new parenting book — How to Raise Kids Who Aren't A**holes: Science-Based Strategies for Better Parenting, From Tots to Teens — may not be G-rated, but it's packed with insight on all things kids, from how to address bullying to quashing sibling blowouts. Instilling compassion in young people is a recurring theme, so Yahoo Life turned to the journalist and mom of two ahead of World Kindness Day on Nov. 13 to share what she's learned about raising kind kids, both as a researcher and parent. 

Ahead, Wenner Moyer — mom of a 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son — explains why being kind is "distinct" from being nice, how conflicts can pave the way for empathy and why sharing isn't necessarily a barometer for good or bad behavior.

When we talk about kids, we often say things like "Oh, she's so sweet" or "be nice" — though that may not necessarily equate with actual kindness. What does kindness really look like for a kid?

I think of kindness as a child who's aware of who she is, or he is, as part of a larger whole and is thinking of others when moving about the world. It's being generous and compassionate and helpful... It's different from niceness. I think of niceness as dispositional — you're easy to get along with, or you engage with people in kind of a positive way and you avoid conflict. And I think kindness is different, because it's placing yourself in this bigger whole and trying to do things to make the world better and help others and just always sort of considering yourself in relation to other people. 

And so you can be kind, but also be assertive and stand up for yourself and say "I don't like it when you do this." You could be kind and not always nice. So I do think of them as distinct, but, yeah, for me that compassion and generosity and helpfulness and empathy are all a big part of kindness.

Your book covers a breadth of topics, from addressing selfishness and bullying to pushing back against racism and sexism. What role do those issues play in the bigger concept of kindness?

When I think of wanting to raise anti-racist kids, it's helping them understand the issues that have affected groups of people for so long and it's harmed them and it's just been incredibly unfair. And so again, it's really helping them gain this historical context and this broader understanding of how humans have treated each other and how humans should treat each other and how we can remedy these injustices that exist. So it is part of the same thing. It's still helping your kids understand this bigger context that they should understand so that they can make the world a better place. It's the same with my chapter on sexism — we need to, as parents, make our kids aware of these problems that persist and aware of these injustices, because you're not going to fight against the problem or injustice unless you know about it. 

And so I think it really is our responsibility as parents to make our kids aware, to help them understand why it's important for them to care and to give them the tools to be able to combat the problems and help other people — and again, make the world a better place. I feel like that's like my platitude that I always say [laughs]. But, again, it is all part of having your kids understand themselves in this bigger community — whether it's your family, whether it's your local community, whether it's the country or your state or the world or their school — and really just understanding the issues that might be harming people and holding people back and helping to try to make everything more sort of egalitarian and fair and good. 

You have a chapter on sibling relationships. For young kids particularly, a lot of friction or seemingly "unkind" moments seem to occur with a sibling or playmate. Is there a way to teach showing kindness to peers?

You can be kind and you're still going to experience conflict; kids fighting with each other is completely normal and it doesn't mean your kid is bad or your parenting is bad or anything like that. Kids have very little impulse control and they also struggle sometimes to put themselves in other people's shoes and understand other people's perspectives. So it's completely natural and normal that kids are going to experience these conflicts, and it's not a reflection on parenting. It's just a part of being a human kid — or adult, for that matter; we certainly have our conflicts too. 

Conflicts could be opportunities for parents and teachers to help kids develop better conflict resolution skills and better empathy for each other, because when kids are fighting over something, it's often because they have very different perspectives. One of the kids is like, "I've been waiting to play with this for 20 minutes and they won't share." And the other kid is like, "I had no idea that you wanted it and I've just been playing and then he stole it from me." So you have these very different perspectives, and it can be really, really constructive for kids to help them see another child's very different perspective of the same situation. That is something that we know helps to develop the skill theory of mind, which is really foundational for the development of generosity and helpfulness. It is essentially the ability to take another person's perspective and to know that another person is having different feelings and different thoughts than you. 

So, how do we do that? [One way] I talked about in my book, if you have the time and your kids are fighting or you have a play date and the two kids are fighting, is to try to help them mediate the conflict. So go in and say, "Wow, you guys sound like you're upset. There's a lot of big feelings in here." Acknowledge and validate their feelings, and then have each child basically say what happened from their perspective, or what's going on from their perspective and how they're feeling and how what happened made them feel. [Let them] really explain their perspective, because that's really good for the other child to hear — because often that other child just has no idea that there is another perspective to have based on that situation. And then help them brainstorm a compromise and say, "What's something we could do that might make both of you happy or that might help you solve this problem?" Sometimes I find when my kids have heard that other perspective, they're actually much more likely and willing to brainstorm and come up with a compromise. So that's one strategy, and it's been shown in clinical trials to really help siblings get along and [also] get along better down the line; the kids kind of internalize some of the strategies as you do it a few times and they start to do it themselves. 

And then one other thing I think that can be really helpful for developing theory of mind and helping kids understand each other's perspectives, so that you avoid conflict in some ways, is to use this approach called induction that I talk about in my book, which is essentially where you're trying — as much as you can — to tie your kid's choices and behaviors to their effects on other people. And so that can work when you're requesting something of your child and you're saying, "Will you please pick up the marbles off the floor because otherwise, I'm going to step on one and then fall and it's going to hurt me." Or, if you're correcting them or guiding them or giving them a lesson — if they've done something you didn't like, like they lied to you — then you could say, "Well, when you lie to me, it makes me feel like I can't trust you. And that makes me sad. And so you're always — to the extent that you can — not just telling your kids to do things or telling them not to do things, but then giving the "why," and having that "why" include the bigger picture of how it affects other people. 

That reinforces to them that they are not operating in this universe just by themselves, that what they're doing and how they're acting and the choices they make are always affecting other people. And so it just kind of helps to plant that seed and reinforce it so that when they're making choices and they're interacting with others down the line, they will start to think of that themselves and think of the other person that's in the room or the other person that they're playing with and make it more automatic for them to think, like, "I wonder what my friend is thinking right now, or feeling right now" and making that more of an automatic process.

Sharing can be a big part of those conflicts. Traditionally, sharing has always been seen as a simple way, especially for a young child, to demonstrate being nice or kind — but a lot of the parenting advice now is that it's OK for kids not to share. Can you talk a bit about that?

It's a nuanced topic because of course, sharing is good. And ultimately we do want our kids to learn how to share, but I think parents often have unrealistic expectations for little kids, especially when it comes to their ability to share and their understanding of how important it is to share. So I think a lot of times we expect 1-, 2- and 3-year-olds to be good at sharing when they start playing with other kids. And the fact is, sharing is very much like a learned skill and it also requires things like impulse control and emotional regulation — all of these skills that take time to develop in kids. It's hard to hand over whatever toy you really want to play with. It does require you to be able to regulate those big emotions and the impulse to pull it back; you have to be able to overcome that. And so to some degree, really young kids just don't have the skills to share very well, and as parents, I think it's important to realize that if your kid isn't sharing it, it isn't evidence that they're being mean or that they're a bad kid in any way. It's just that they haven't really fully developed those skills. And so we should be careful not to shame them or to make them feel terrible if they don't share it, because it really is something that they may not have all the skills to be able to do.

One thing I talk about in my book is how sometimes it can be helpful to let kids share on their own timeline. I think a lot of times what we do as parents is we see our kids aren't sharing and we jump in and we take the toy away from our kid and say, "You're not sharing. You have to share. I'm going to give this to your friend if you don't." And when we're doing that, we then are creating this environment where suddenly, to your kid, the idea of sharing is just awful. Mom just yelled at me and took this toy away from me. Suddenly sharing is the worst thing in the world to your kid. And they're really not going to be learning how to share based on that interaction. 

What can be better is to let your child basically have some time with that toy. You could set limits on how long the turns can be. If it's siblings, you could say, "You can have a turn as long as you want, but tomorrow morning it automatically goes to your brother." And what you find is that sometimes the child will play with the toy for however long and realize, "OK, I'm kind of done with it" and then willingly give it over to their brother. Then in that actual interaction, sharing becomes this positive experience to both kids; the one who finally gives it over is experiencing that nice feeling you get when you give something to somebody who wants [it] and you've done it willingly and you're having a positive interaction with your sibling. 

The research shows that kids who have not been forced to share, but who have chosen to share on their own timeline, are much more likely to share again in the future. Again, I think because it's a much more positive experience for the child. So obviously this is difficult because the kid who was not being shared with is probably going to get upset and probably going to have a meltdown and be like "this isn't fair," and that's something that you might have to deal with. But I think it really does help to reinforce sharing as something positive and increase the chance that your child will do it again. 

As a mom of two, is there anything that you've learned in the course of writing your book that has been a big game-changer in your own family?

There's a bunch of stuff from my research that has changed my parenting to some degree. One of the big things is that I'm like constantly looking for opportunities to talk to my kids about the world and about big issues like racism and sexism and kindness and to point out examples of things I feel that aren't fair. I feel like a lot of times there are areas where either parents think, My child doesn't need to know about this yet, or I want to protect them from this negative concept... We might assume, Oh, my kid's pretty nice at home, so I'm pretty sure that he's never gonna engage in bullying. I never need to talk to him about what bullying is, I never need to talk about something that feels like it's just not relevant to them. 

Now having read the research and talked to a lot of researchers, I realized it's actually really constructive to talk to kids about things that you either think maybe they don't need to know about, or they shouldn't know about, if you can do it in an age-appropriate way. I think that that could be incredibly instructive. 

And so l'm kind of all the time just on the lookout for things — like when we pass a house and it has a Black Lives Matter sign in the front yard, I will point it out... and then often my kids will come up with a question they want to ask about Black Lives Matter that's been sitting in the back of their head and they never would have brought up, but here's a good opportunity. Or if we see something sexist happening in a TV show or something, I will say, "Hey, did you notice that? Did you notice how he didn't listen to her idea, and only listened to the other guy's idea? What's going on there?" I make more comments and observations in front of them that I hope will start conversation, or I'll ask them questions based on something I see and that will start a conversation. I'm just much more likely to do that kind of thing now having written a book, and it probably will drive them insane soon [laughs]

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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