How to teach kids the importance of prosocial behaviors.

Updated: Jul 11


Picture of Little girl helping old woman in a greenhouse.
We can teach our children to love helping others.

It can be difficult to teach kids things like manners, because they don't always understand the point. We have been lucky to find some books that help to teach things like sharing, manners, kindness and more. You can also build teaching manners into simple things that you do.


When my kids were both learning to talk, I would first have them learn the names of things when they asked for it. Then, to ask for things in a sentence. Finally, I have them ask saying please and thank you. So that part can flow naturally as a part of language development. It is some of the other skills that can take more time to learn.


Talking to Kids about Feelings.


In order for kids to understand the importance of manners, we have to teach them that manners are a way to show others that we care about them. The first step to doing this is to teach our kids about feelings, both their own and other people's.


Feelings can be difficult to understand in the beginning, and you can start with the basics like happy, sad, mad, tired and hungry. Kids are very emotions driven, so having labels for their feelings can help them learn to cope with their intense emotions and begin learning emotional self-regulation.


Also, you can play games where kids learn about feelings, such as taking turns making faces for different feelings and guessing what face the other is making. Or, you can use a picture of emoji-looking faces to illustrate feelings as well.


When you talk about feelings in a safe way, in situations where they aren't upset, it teaches them to be more emotionally self-aware. This is a valuable skill that can be used throughout their lifetime.


Picture of four sisters lying on the grass and hugging
Children can express empathy and love for each other.

Empathy and Perspective-Taking.


Once children start to understand feelings, they can start to learn empathy for other people. Empathy and understanding other people's perspectives can lead to kindness and prosocial behaviors.


According to Zero to Three, "Being able to empathize with another person means that a child:

  • Understands that he is a separate individual, his own person;

  • Understands that others can have different thoughts and feelings than he has;

  • Recognizes the common feelings that most people experience—happiness, surprise, anger, disappointment, sadness, etc.;

  • Is able to look at a particular situation (such as watching a peer saying good-bye to a parent at child care) and imagine how he—and therefore his friend—might feel in this moment; and

  • Can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in that particular situation—such as offering his friend a favorite toy or teddy bear to comfort her."

Children can easily become kind and thoughtful people, once they learn to think about other's feelings. You can teach this at home using your own feelings, those of family members, or movie and book characters. When you read a story, you can ask simple questions like, "How do you think that makes him feel?" Having the opportunity to reflect can be very helpful.




Also, when children go through phases where they hit, kick or bite, you can explain to them very simply that it hurts. Young children will sometimes do these things because they are excited by the big reaction that they get. My daughter went through a biting phase, and the first time I told her it hurt, she cried and said she was sorry, and she never did it again.


Don't assume that kids know what you know. They only know as much as we teach them.


Prosocial Behaviors.


At the same time that you are teaching kids about feelings, you can also begin to teach them prosocial behaviors like manners, sharing and helping. Little ones are usually really excited to be able to help their caregivers, and to learn new skills. My daughter loves to help clean up around the house, and takes a sense of pride in making everything look nice again.


Sharing and taking turns can be a bit harder, because it involves waiting, which is harder for kids to understand. When kids first learn to play together, we can help them to take turns by teaching things like asking to trade one toy for another, or using a timer to determine how long each child gets to keep a toy. If you do decide to use a timer, make sure that it will be five minutes at most, because that can seem like an eternity to a little child.


Also, as far as sharing goes, if a child has a special toy that they don't want to share, I would advise keeping that home from play dates. That way, there isn't going to be some huge arguement over a favorite. Kids don't always have to share, but making something simply unavailable can help to alleviate the problems associated with this.


Teaching children to share can sometimes feel like hearding cats, but it can be done with time, practice, and modeling. It is also important to praise children when they do share, instead of just providing negative feedback when they don't. According to Raising Children, "Children also need opportunities to learn about and practise sharing. Here are some ways to encourage sharing in everyday life:

  • Talk about why sharing is good for your child and others. You can say something like, ‘When you share your toys with your friend, everyone gets to have fun’.

  • Point out good sharing in others. For example, ‘Your friend was sharing her toys really well. That was very kind of her’.

  • When you see your child trying to share or take turns, give your child plenty of praise and attention. For example, ‘I liked the way you let Aziz play with your train. Great sharing!’

  • Play games with your child that involve sharing and turn-taking. Talk your child through the steps, saying things like, ‘Now it’s my turn to build the tower, then it’s your turn. You share the red blocks with me, and I’ll share the green blocks with you’.

  • Talk with your child about sharing before playdates with other children. For example, you could say, ‘When Georgia comes over, you’ll need to share some of your toys. Why don’t we ask her what she wants to play with?’ You can also talk with your child about sharing before they start child care or preschool."


Manners take time to learn correctly, but starting small, at a young age can help later on. It is easiest to start with saying please and thank you, because those will come up the most in a conversation. That's why I love teaching these basics to my kids as they are learning to talk, so that they understand please and thank you to be basic parts of the way we talk to each other. It also helps to be polite when we as adults speak to each other, so that we model proper behaviors for our kids.


According to the Center for Parenting Education, teaching kids gratutude can also help them learn to use good manners.

"When children express their appreciation for things that are done for them or given to them, they:

  • feel better about themselves

  • begin to see themselves as recipients rather than “takers”

  • develop a sense of empathy as they recognize that other people are going out of their way for them.

Without such expressions of gratitude, children become self-centered and take for granted all that they have. People who use “please” and “thank you” regularly come across as gracious and thoughtful, both admirable qualities."


When it comes to my kids, I have always told them that using manners is a way to show people that you care about them. Caring about others, using empathy and gratitude, is a great way to teach kids why using manners is important. It helps to widen their world view and put themselves in someone else's place in order to understand why using manners is important.


Picture of mother and little girl making a heart shape with their hands.
Kindness comes from caring and empathy for others.

Kindness.


Teaching our children kindness is something that takes time as well, but it flows from empathy and helpfulness. Once kids learn to understand other people's feelings, they will want to help them when they feel sad. Little ones also like to help "take care" of mom or dad if one of you is feeling sick.


Again, a lot of this behavior comes from modeling our behaviors. If we regularly give them a bandaid or a kiss when they fall down, they they will learn to do this for others.


As they grow, small acts of kindness will grow into larger acts of kindness. Little children may pick a flower, or give you a shiny rock. As they grow older, they will help friends and family in bigger ways.


The main thing to teaching kids about kindness has to do with teaching them that our actions come from the heart, and that we do things to help people that we care about. We can also teach them compassion for everyone, and that it is important to care about and help those that are less fortunate than we are.


We can do this by explaining why we help our friends move their furniture, fix things for neighbors, or volunteer our time to a charity. It isn't that we always enjoy the task itself, we enjoy being able to help someone in need. That type of kindness and giving is a value that we can instill into our children to last a lifetime.


Explain things to kids at every opportunity.


When we explain to kids why we do the things we do, it helps them understand our feelings and motivations. The more we do this, the faster they will learn to understand feelings, and to develop empathy and prosocial behaviors. It helps them get a glimpse into adult thinking and reasoning.


My partner and I are both over-explainers, so at times being in our house will sound like a series of narrations about what we are doing and why. Some parents (like my mom) hate when kids ask why, but we both enjoy it as an opportunity for our daughter to learn.


Conclusion.


Starting when our children are small, we can teach them the importance of empathy and prosocial behaviors. We can do this through modeling these actions ourselves as we interact with our children and with others. We can also explain at every opportunity ways to be kind and helpful to others, and explain how children's actions effect other people's feelings. By teaching the value of kindness and helpfulness, it will foster empathy in them. This leads to prosocial actions, beliefs and values in our children which will serve them well throughout their lives.


If this resonates with you, please feel free to share on your socials as well.

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