Wordsworkinc's Weblog

Life, love and language

Kids and Kindness

Teaching Kids Kindness
When I was doing some research for my blog on schadenfreude I was quite surprised to find out that even very young children can derive some satisfaction from the misfortunes of others. This doesn’t mean that they are unable to be compassionate, but this compassion is largely tempered by their level of development. So, a lack of impulse control could cause a gentle stroking of the cat to segue into an unkind (and potentially scratch inducing) tail pull; and the conviction that they are the centre of their little universes makes the idea of sharing very difficult.
Given this, is it possible to teach kindness to young children? I believe it is. If you have a preschooler who is more inclined to hit his playmate over the head than share his toys with him here are some ideas for introducing them to the concept of altruism.
Model Kindness.
We all know that kids learn by imitation. Just try sticking out your tongue at a baby and see how quickly they copy you. This ability in very young infants to mimic your actions is a precursor of empathy which has usually developed around two years of age. By this age they are able to recognize emotions in others which they are not necessarily experiencing themselves and will often try to comfort someone in distress.

Infant sticking out tongue by Carlos Martinez

Photo by Carlos Martinez

Children between one and three years learn both by watching and by doing so if you want your child to grow up kind you need to show kindness yourself. Every time you take cookies to your next-door neighbour, help someone carry their groceries, hold the door open, walk more slowly to allow them to keep up with you, even pet an animal, you are showing your child how to be kind.
Speak Kindly
Moderate your voice, speak gently, use please and thankyou, not just when speaking to other adults but when you speak to your child. Greet people you meet when out walking or shopping with your child and don’t be afraid to compliment, sincerely, the colour of a stranger’s outfit or their hairstyle.
On the other hand, do not tolerate name-calling and be careful not to trash talk yourself. Remember that when you speak negatively of your relatives or colleagues your child hears you and presumes that its alright for them to talk that way.
Encourage Kindness
Young children have not yet reached the stage when chores are to be avoided at all costs. While helping around the house is still considered fun, encourage them to help.
Sure, you can do it all much faster and more efficiently yourself, but a bit (or a lot) of patience now can instill in your child an appreciation for what others do to keep life running smoothly and an inclination to help them to do so.


Photo by Laterjay

Label Kindness
Recognize what kindness is – compassion, feeling for others and reaching out to comfort or assist. Then label these feelings and actions when you and your child come across them in your community, ‘wasn’t it kind of that man to help the lady in the wheelchair onto the sidewalk?’, and especially when your child exhibits them. A simple ‘that was very kind of you’, or, ‘you made your friend feel much better when you gave her a hug’, helps to confirm the act and hopefully encourage the start of a life time habit of kindness.



July 27, 2018 Posted by | Children | | 2 Comments



1. pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.

When I was a little girl, my mother often recited this poem to me:

‘When I was at the party,’
Said Betty, aged just four,
‘A little girl fell off her chair
Right down upon the floor;

And all the other little girls
Began to laugh, but me –
I didn’t laugh a single bit’,
Said Betty seriously.

‘Why not?’– her mother asked her,
Full of delight to find
That Betty – bless her little heart! –
Had been so sweetly kind.

‘Why didn’t you laugh, my darling?
Or don’t you like to tell?’
I didn’t laugh, said Betty,
‘Cos I’m the one who fell.

Laughing girls - photographer Caroline Hernandez

Photographer: Caroline Hernandez

There is no doubt that the laughter of young children is as contagious as a yawn. But there is also no doubt that at times that laughter is misdirected.

For most adults the misfortunes or embarrassment of their peers seem to be a source of endless hilarity – one only has to watch America’s Funniest to see what is considered amusing. This reaction to the humiliation or discomfort of our fellowman is known as schadenfreude and a number of studies have been done to try to determine why we find the bad luck of others so entertaining. But are children really as malicious as that, and, if so, is it genetic or is it a learned behaviour?

In a study carried out at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany (1), children aged between 4 and 8 years were shown picture stories of a child carrying out an activity with either a positive or a negative intention, for example, climbing a tree to pick fruit for a sibling or to throw fruit at the sibling. In both cases the child has an accident – falling out of the fruit tree and hurting himself. Although the researchers reported that a small amount of schadenfreude was felt by the children even when the child in the story was carrying out a good deed, by far the majority of them reacted with pleasure when the child who hurt himself was intending to hurt his sibling. In this case schadenfreude was prompted by the degree to which the children felt the accident was deserved.

Even younger children have been shown to derive a certain amount of pleasure from the misfortunes of others. A 2014 study found that children as young as two years showed signs of schadenfreude in response to what they perceived as unfair situations involving their peers.(2)  In this study some of the toddlers were videotaped watching their mothers reading a story to child of the same age as themselves while another group were shown their mothers reading on their own. In both cases the book was then spoilt when water was spilt on it. When the researchers analysed the reactions of both groups of toddlers they found a greater incidence of jealousy and accompanying schadenfreude in the first group. So this study linked jealousy to the feeling of pleasure in the observed misfortune.

Jealousy is also the major issue in sibling rivalry which can become so intense that one child may deliberately set out to get their sibling into trouble in order to enjoy their misfortune while they bask in their parents’ approval.

In both of these studies schadenfreude is linked to the child’s belief that the other’s misfortune is, in some way, deserved.  In my experience working with young, preschool children, not many appear to enjoy the random mishaps of their peers and even try to comfort them, whereas the tendency to laugh when a peer is embarrassed or even hurt seems to increase as they reach school age.  I stress that this is simply my observation, not a scientific conclusion.  It does, however, suggest to me that, on the whole, schadenfreude is a learned response. (3)

Siblings - photo by Ben WhiteAnd yet there are some young children who seem to completely lack the ability to feel for their less fortunate friends, while others appear to have been born with a greater propensity for empathy and compassion than most of their peers.

It’s the old nature vs nurture question which keeps raising its aged head, although today we know the issues are far more complex than the question suggests.

A more important question is, can we teach children empathy and how do they learn to be kind?   – the subject for another blog?


Photographer: Ben White




1. Schulz, K., Rudolph, A., Tscharaktschiew, N. and Rudolph, U. (2013), Daniel has fallen into a muddy puddle – Schadenfreude or sympathy?. Br J Dev Psychol, 31: 363–378. doi:10.1111/bjdp.12013

2. Shamay-Tsoory SG, Ahronberg-Kirschenbaum D, Bauminger-Zviely N (2014) There Is No Joy like Malicious Joy: Schadenfreude in Young Children. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100233. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0100233

3. See Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory.


May 10, 2018 Posted by | Children | Leave a comment

Free Range Parenting.


On the back of my daycare’s business card is one of my favourite quotes by Hodding Carter: “There are two lasting bequests we can give our children: One is roots, the other is wings.”  Both are equally important but more and more today we seem to be content bringing up turkeys rather than eagles.


This quote came to mind when I first read about Utah’s ‘Free Range Parenting Bill’ on someone’s Facebook page recently. According to this bill, which has apparently been signed into law, children of ‘sufficient age’ may be allowed to undertake a number of independent activities, including walking or cycling to school, visiting malls and recreational facilities, playing out of doors, and even remaining at home on their own, without their parents being accused of neglect. According to the Free Range Parenting law, as long as children are fed, clothed and cared for the authorities cannot take them away from their parents.


True to form, most of the comments on that page were negative, predicting wide spread abduction of children from various parks, malls and other unsupervised facilities.  My first response was thankfulness that when I brought up my children I was unaware of the multitude of parenting rules I should have been adhering to.


Yes, we had permissive parents whose kids happily went their own way with little or no rules, authoritarian parents who were heavy on discipline and, often, the wooden spoon, and authoritative parents who somehow managed to hit the happy medium between the two.   But to the best of my knowledge helicopter parenting, as an extreme example of modern childcare, was an unheard-of phenomenon. Who had the time or energy to keep up with the kids 24/7?


As long as they were back before dark and relatively in one piece most parents were happy.

Of course, there are countries where circumstances are such that even adults are wary about walking the streets on their own and helicopter or hovering parenting is almost essential. But in North America, and especially in Canada, this type of hyper parenting seems a little ridiculous.  In answer to the fear mongers who warn of wholesale child abduction the reality is that very few children are ever abducted by strangers.

According to police statistics, of the 46,718 children reported missing in 2011, only 25 were classified as being abducted by a stranger. And a study carried out in 2003 looking at the 90 missing children reports which were classified as stranger abduction in 2000 and 2001, found that only two of them had, in fact, been abducted by people who were neither a relative or close family friend. In other words, the vast majority were taken by someone they knew.

And in most cases where children are abducted by someone other than a close family member they were teenagers, a number of whom went willingly with their abductors.

I think the majority of parents are aware that the world out there is not necessarily peopled by bogey men (or women), and as long as they take reasonable precautions their children will come back from the local park, store or school no worse for wear for their adventures.  Unfortunately, though, there are an awful lot of people, most of whom do not appear to have children themselves, who are very quick to interfere when they see a child doing anything they consider in the least bit dangerous.

There is the world of difference between abusing or neglecting a child and allowing them to experience independence, but these self-appointed judges will readily report parents for the latter.

Parents have been reported for allowing children to walk home on their own, for playing in the local park unsupervised, and even for playing unsupervised in their own, fenced, back yard.  In one extreme case a neighbour called the police when parents were delayed on their way home from work and their eleven-year-old played baseball in their yard for 90 minutes while he waited for them. When the parents arrived they were handcuffed, fingerprinted and retained overnight, and their children, 11 and 4 years old were removed from them for a month.  The trauma to the children during this experience is unimaginable.   

Most of these incidents happened in the US but Canada is certainly not immune to this insanity.  A stay at home mom from Winnipeg was reported and investigated by Child and Family Services for letting her children play in their own backyard while she was busy indoors.


Photo by Jessica To’oto’o on Unsplash

The sad truth is that most children no longer have the opportunity to play freely without adult control.  This may be due to technology with the ever-present enticement of computer games and television, or it may be because parents are afraid of either the perceived dangers of outdoor play or the judgement of outsiders.  Whatever the reason  there has been a gradual but ‘dramatic decline’ over the past 60 years in children’s opportunity to play independently.  And according to Peter Gray, Ph.D, a research professor at Boston College, over the same period there has been a corresponding increase in childhood mental and especially emotional disorders. 

Hopefully Utah’s Free Range Parenting Bill is an indication that the tide is slowly turning and that soon children will be allowed to be children again

April 8, 2018 Posted by | Children | Leave a comment