Teaching kids to be nice

My kids are getting to that age now when they’re easily influenced by their friends. It frightens me, but at the same time I know it’s an inevitable part of childhood.

Recently, my kids and I went on an outing with some friends. While there, one of my boys’  friends was put off by the fact that there were other people around — as though the entire place belonged to only our little group. I happened to overhear this boy devise a plan with my kids that would involve telling the strangers to get lost.

When I heard this, I made immediate eye contact with my nine year old with a look that spoke a thousand words — or ten to be exact: Don’t even think about it or I will ruin you!

Fortunately, he knew exactly what that look meant and heeded my warning, as did his brother.

When I questioned my kids about it later, they told me that this boy did fact carry out his plan; he did in fact tell these strangers—adults, no less—to “go away.”

They assured me they were not part of it, but fessed up to laughing at their friend when he did it. Still not okay (not in my book).

I try, on a regular basis, to talk to my kids about right and wrong. And for the most part, I think they get it. But they’re not always going to make the right decisions. I won’t always be there to give them the evil eye.

So, how do I teach my kids to be nice, even when I’m not there? Is what I’m doing today enough? Do they get it? Really get it?

So I did some research (because that’s when I do when I’m at a loss for what to do next). I’m happy to report: there’s tons of information out there on the topic.

Here’s what I gleaned from my little research project:

Be a role model. Let your child see how you treat others. If he sees you speaking rudely to others, he’ll think it’s okay to do it himself. If he sees you being generally kind to others, he’ll want to emulate that behavior.

Set expectations. Remind your child on a regular basis what you expect from him—which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.

Don’t turn a blind eye. Don’t stand by and watch your child partake in name calling or any other rude behavior; don’t allow him to talk back to adults; don’t allow him to talk back to you.

Set consequences. When and if your child does display unacceptable behavior, make sure he knows his actions have consequences. A child who grows up with no consequences will turn into an adult who thinks the rules of society don’t apply to him.

Encourage him to help others. By exposing your child to those who are less fortunate, you are giving him an opportunity to develop empathy at an early age. The American Psychological Association suggests involving your child in organized community volunteer or church programs designed specifically for kids.

Tell your child how his behavior makes you feel. Kids don’t want to disappoint their parents. So, by letting him know that his behavior made you unhappy, he may think twice about doing it again. But be careful not to attack him as a person. Only talk in terms of the behavior. Say something like, “what you did was rude,” rather than “you are a rude.

Teach the value of an apology. Everyone makes mistakes. And everyone has a need to apologize at some time or another. Your child will not always live up to the expectations that are set for him. But if he can acknowledge his bad behavior and apologize, he’ll have a greater understanding for how his actions impact others, and learn what it means to take responsibility for those actions.

Acknowledge good behavior. That’s not to say he should expect to get rewarded for every kind act. But if his good behavior is positively reinforced and recognized, he’ll feel better about himself and be more likely to repeat the behavior.

After doing my research, I feel encouraged; I believe I’m on the right track. But–and that’s a big BUT–I know I can do more.

Teaching kids to be nice is not a one-and-done conversation. It’s something that must be taught and reinforced on a regular basis, in many different ways.

At the end of the day, we all do the best we can to raise kind children—and that’s all we can do. One day they will be on their own, and they’ll have to choose how they conduct themselves. We won’t always be there to steer them in the right direction, so better to set the foundation now.

Good articles:

What makes kids care: Teaching gentleness in a violent world 
Always cool to be kind
How to raise a compassionate child


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  1. These are things we cannot let go by the wayside. I love your view, and I feel the same way. If nothing else, I want my kids to be kind and compassionate. Thanks for the articles to read and the great tips. Some of them I thought of before I saw your list, but many are EXCELLENT points!

    • It’s such a huge focus for me. I am determined to raise kids who are not mean. I’m sure this job will only get harder as they get older.

  2. Great post. This is what I’m facing now. Mine are being so rude to each other at home, and I worry how they are acting away from home. I always remind them to think about how mom and dad would feel about their behavior before they act. I have had a friend’s mom tell me how sweet and polite my 7 yo is, so I guess I must be doing something right.

    • Kathy, I can only hope my kids are more well behaved when I’m not around. They’re kids. They’re not gonna always be well behaved. But if they can be generally kind people, then I’m happy!

  3. Great post!! I really appreciate the points and ad ice you provided xoxo

  4. I really appreciated this post. I think too often parents forget the value of teaching their kids manners and to just be nice. Go you for recognizing the importance and working to share this with your kids. Great list.

  5. Great post! I might add – teaching empathy. Not only modeling behavior but teaching your child how to comfort someone when their hurt. I think that goes a long way to helping kids learn how to be nice to each other.

  6. Great post, Steph! Not sure how I missed this one. Hubs and I were talking about this very topic the other day. Thank you for the great tips!

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