What does it take to raise a compassionate child? Here are some suggestions for parents and teachers that is based on psychological research:
• Praise is more effective than rewards. If we want to reinforce caring, rewards run the risk of leading children to be kind only when a carrot is offered, whereas praise communicates that sharing is intrinsically worthwhile for its own sake.
• With children around 8 years old, praise character, not actions. Say, for example, “You’re a very nice and helpful person,” which leads children to internalize being helpful as part of their identity. However, this approach doesn’t work with younger children, who haven’t formed a stable sense of self, and with children 10 and older, there’s no difference in whether they’re praised for character or actions.
• With unacceptable behavior, say you’re disappointed. Expressing disappointment, explaining why the behavior was wrong, how it affected others, and how they can rectify the situation enables children to develop standards for judging their actions, feelings of empathy and responsibility for others, and a sense of moral identity, which are conducive to becoming a helpful person. The beauty of expressing disappointment is that it communicates disapproval of the bad behavior, coupled with high expectations and the potential for improvement: “You’re a good person, even if you did a bad thing, and I know you can do better.”
• Nouns work better than verbs. It’s better to encourage a child to “be a helper” than “to help,” and it’s better to say, “Please don’t be a cheater” than “Please don’t cheat.” When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become part of us.
• Model caring and generous behavior. Studies have shown that children pay more attention to what adults do than what they preach. Children learn generosity not by listening to what their role models say, but by observing what they do.”
Adapted from “Raising a Moral Child” by Adam Grant as printed in The New York Times.