Empathy and kindness were the topics of this year’s Child Mind Institute Spring Luncheon: how to nurture them in children, and how to help children respond when they are treated less than kindly by others.
The guest of honor was Angela Santomero, creator and executive producer of Blue’s Clues and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, who has written a book called Radical Kindness: The Life-Changing Power of Giving and Receiving. Santomero said parents set the tone for kids, not by what they say but by what they do — by giving other people the benefit of the doubt, going out of their way to bond, considering someone else’s perspective. “Every little bit that we do has a contagious effect.”
Prioritizing kindness around children is important, noted Ali Wentworth, actress, comedian, author, producer and moderator of the discussion. “In our culture it’s beginning to feel like kindness is weakness.”
Santomero agreed, saying that social-emotional skills, often thought of as “softer skills,” shouldn’t be considered less important to a child’s success than academic skills. “EQ is as important as IQ.”
As parents, we can use our own failures as teaching moments for our kids, observed Rachel Busman, PsyD, ABPP, the third member of the panel and the Senior Director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute. We can tell kids, “I don’t like the way I handled that,” or “I wasn’t as understanding as I should have been.” And we can discuss with kids how we might have done better.
As adults, when we’re frustrated, points out Wentworth, we tend to go right to anger, masking other emotions we might be feeling. “Modeling and narrating the whole range of emotion can be a way of problem-solving about frustration,” Dr. Busman noted.
Dealing with a bullying situation can be particularly charged for parents, who tend to want to rush to the defense of their child. When a child reports being bullied, better to step back, Dr. Busman noted, and ask the child to tell you what happened, and how he felt. What did he think the bully might have been feeling? “Unpacking what really transpired and listening to the child can often defuse the situation.”
As parents we want to jump in and fix things — but listening is more powerful, she added. And getting kids to help think about a solution to a conflict will help more, Santomero noted.