Johnny and his friend Katya were playing in the park. Katya picked up a toy dump truck and started filling it with sand and pebbles. Johnny grabbed it from her, shouting, "Hey, that's mine. And it's just for boys!" When Katya burst into tears, Johnny's mother hurried over, put one arm around Katya, and took Johnny by the hand. Patiently, she listened as the children each told their side of the story. She helped them resolve the conflict by talking about their feelings, and gaining new insights in the process.
Children's play is rich in meaning: It reveals their ability to explore important themes and highlights the importance of modeling appropriate social interactions. Developing kindness and compassion for others is a critical part of your child's growth. The ability to accept others, even if they are different, and feel compassion for them is an essential element of social competency, which I firmly believe is just as important as any academic training. Socially competent children are more successful in life. The ability to relate to and accept people who are different is not just a desired trait — it's a necessity for living in a diverse society.
As your child's social skills ripen, he develops "people skills" that will aid him in shaping positive encounters, working in groups, and inspiring others. Kindness, tolerance, and empathy — the ability to understand another person's feelings — are qualities that children develop over time through observation and practice. The loving relationship you share with your newborn starts this process. By age 2, your toddler might not understand why his friend is crying, but he may try to comfort her by offering his own blankie or teddy. By age 3, he is more aware of others as individuals, but still has trouble relating to how others actually feel. Older children can begin to understand that other people have feelings separate from their own and often realize when they've hurt someone else. By the time your child is 5 or 6, he can discuss kindness and brainstorm ideas for how to help others.
Because your child learns by watching what you do and say when you interact with others, the warmth and understanding you show her is key. To teach kindness, you must first instill your belief that she is capable of being kind and tolerant, and that how she treats other people matters greatly to you. When you kiss her scrapes, cuddle with her when she is scared, or help her solve a puzzle, you are giving her the base from which she can reach out to others.
The formation of reciprocal relationships and the discovery of uniqueness in others begin with play. As your child grows, he advances beyond the solitary play of infants to the parallel play of toddlers, in which children may play in the same area, sharing materials and physical proximity, without attempting to coordinate play. In preschool, children are more likely to engage in associative play, in which they share and coordinate materials but don't truly cooperate. For example, your child might direct playmates in what should happen next. By kindergarten, children progress to collaborative play, which includes planning, negotiation, and cooperation. As play becomes more sophisticated, it offers more opportunities for kind and compassionate interactions.
Observing Your Child's Play
Through their play, children are constantly telling us how they see themselves in relation to others. You can gauge your child's understanding of kindness, compassion, and tolerance by observing how he plays alone and in groups, and by asking questions, such as, "Why do you think Henry's feelings were hurt when you called him that name?"
During playdates or trips to the park, observe her interactions with other children. Listen carefully to what she says, and try to appreciate her creativity as she uses her imagination, especially when trying out different roles. When children explore the roles of adults in their community, they reveal their beliefs about their culture and their expectations for adulthood. For example, after an hour-long visit with a group of preschoolers, I told them it was time for me to leave. "No, you don't have to go," said Lisa. "You're a father." (She assumed that fathers are the boss and can do what they like.)
"Actually, I'm not a father. But I am a brother," I replied.
"You can't be a brother. You're a man!" another girl exclaimed, giggling.
"Yes, he can," said Christopher. "My father has a brother."
Through their discussion, these children were trying to help one another understand all the different things a man can be. Even in this simple exchange, they show concern for one another by trying to clarify what's true and what isn't.
Accepting what your child says is an obvious but often overlooked way to teach acceptance. For example, during a sleepover, Jenny and Sam wanted a snack. Jenny's mom offered celery and peanut butter — "Jenny's favorite." Sam winced and said, "I don't like to eat celery." Jenny's mom said that when she was a little girl, she didn't like to eat celery either. In this exchange, Jenny's mom showed her acceptance of Sam, even though Sam disliked something that Jenny's family enjoys.
It's not always easy to know how to respond to what children say or ask. Children cope with thorny questions about gender roles, racial differences, and identity through play, particularly when they are between 4 and 5 years old. Play is a safe way for children to explore their fears, ideas, and worldview. If you listen, you might hear some surprising debates arise: "Boys can't play with the baby doll!" or "Girls aren't fast enough to play soccer!" or "You can't speak Spanish because you don't look Mexican." These types of conversations are valuable, and dialogue should be encouraged. You can ask your child why he thinks his statement is true and use it as a basis for further discussion.
Encouraging Tolerance and Empathy
You can encourage your child to be kind and gentle and to make the concepts of diversity and acceptance more "real" and meaningful in many ways. As a parent, you are your child's conduit to the world, so the way you interact with others is important. But a child also needs to understand her place in your family and something about her own culture and background. Then she can relate to others in her neighborhood, classroom, town, and eventually in the world.
Using what your child already knows and loves — books, music, blocks, dolls, dress-up clothes, or other toys — is the easiest, most natural way to expand your child's knowledge about her own family culture, as well as those that are different from hers. It can be as simple as introducing items and games from different cultures into your child's play.
- Play outside. Because kids tend to meet more children in outdoor play spaces, outdoor play provides more opportunities for children to learn to be comfortable around all different kinds of people.
- Encourage your child to both give and receive during play. Being able to receive a kind thought or deed or share a special toy is another way children learn about compassion.
- Make gifts for relatives and friends. It may be for a birthday, holiday, or simply because you like them. Encourage your child to send a card to a classmate who is out sick.
- Invite new friends over for a meal. Involve your child in the excitement of the preparations. Include him in writing an invitation, making a phone call, choosing the menu, simple cooking, and setting the table.
- In your child's room, tape up photos of international buildings, unique shelters, blueprints of different house plans, and maps.
- Label objects in English and Spanish, or use other languages. Collect coins and money from different countries, or even quarters from different states. Point out the different designs and talk about them.
- During a playdate, encourage your child and his friend to build a structure together. Lay a hula hoop on the floor and tell the children to build within this area. This activity helps children learn to work with someone else in a small space and teaches problem-solving skills.
- Play detective. Make fingerprints of family members and friends. Examine them with magnifying glasses and invite your child to share what he notices.
- Start a cookie-dough factory. With a group of three people, create a team of bakers. You'll need cookie dough, a small rolling pin, a cookie cutter, a spatula, and a baking sheet. Work together to make as many cookies as possible. Each person on the team has a specific job to do: Person number one rolls out the dough with the rolling pin; person number two uses the cookie cutter to cut out the cookies; person number three uses the spatula to lift the cookies onto the cookie sheet; and you put them in the oven. Together, count the number of cookies you've made, and perhaps give some as a gift. (To demonstrate what happens when people don't work together as a team, have person number two hide the cookie cutter. What happened?)
Just as you can learn a lot from watching your child play, she learns a great deal from observing the adults in her life. You are her most powerful influence. By teaching her about other people and places, and by reinforcing kindness, tolerance, and compassion, you give her the skills to live peacefully and comfortably in a diverse world.