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How can I raise a kind kid in a not-so-nice digital world?

A childhood expert shares research-backed tips on fostering compassion in kids.

I'm Regan McMahon, the deputy editor, books, at Common Sense Media, and a lot of books that come across my desk are meant to help kids develop empathy and compassion. It makes me wonder: How tough is it to be kind in a world where tweets, memes, and posts can be so mean? I spoke with Maryam Abdullah, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist who directs the Parenting Program of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the mother of a preschooler. She offered lots of practical tips for parents—backed by science—on using media and modeling to instill the values of kindness and caring in kids.

Regan: What can we do to raise kind kids in this era of media and technology?

Maryam: At Greater Good, we try to impart the latest science on how to live a meaningful life, and we've done a lot of work about purpose. A purpose—what they may be able to contribute to the world or how they want to make their mark on the world—gives kids some sense of inspiration and motivation to learn about new things. So helping them integrate that with their choices around media and technology can be an important way to help them be kind and caring.

RM: How can we impart our values about kindness in a culture that often seems unkind?

MA: We should talk to our children about representation in media where folks are making choices that are often denigrating other people. You can take the position that we're a family of upstanders, and when we see something that's wrong, we do what we can to call it out and become allies with folks who are being denigrated or ostracized in our daily lives.

We can help them find media where they can feel moral elevation, where they feel that warmth and the feeling of being uplifted. That's a healthy strategy for parents to try to combat some of the immersion in negativity.

RM: How do we get kids to internalize these messages and truly take them to heart?

MA: As parents, we can make that link for them. Like pointing out when we saw that kid in the neighborhood that other kids weren't playing with and our child stepped up and decided to ask them to play together. You can help them identify that this choice they made is similar to what a character in a story or a movie did. This can help them begin to internalize that they are caring, compassionate, and kind, as well.

RM: How can parents model kindness?

MA: It's important to model kindness day to day. What does that look like? It's the way you speak to the person at the coffee shop, or when you're filling up gas—are you going to cut in front of the car in front of you to try to get that last spot that's there? Showing them instances in which we can be caring and kind in everyday occurrences, within the family and beyond the family, leaves a tremendous impression on a child. They're watching us all the time.

RM: What do you do when you screw up—from road rage to talking mean about a co-worker or family member?

MA: That's an opportunity for humility, right? For parents to be able to acknowledge it in front of their kids is hugely important. It helps them see that we make mistakes all the time, [that] the opportunity for learning is always there.

And it's important for parents to show that there are challenges they're working on day to day and show the strategies that might help them be more self-compassionate or to help calm themselves, to be able to be more receptive to seeing the needs of other people and have a lens of instant empathy rather than being so focused on their own needs. It models for children that this is a common human experience and we all can get back on board and do better.

RM: As we navigate this world of social media and new technologies, like TikTok or Snapchat or whatever comes along, do you think things are going in a kind direction?

MA: There's always room for improvement, and we as a scientific community are trying to study what the long-term effects might be. We should help teach our kids to be skeptical consumers so they can critically evaluate and ask how it's contributing to their well-being as well as the well-being of their community and their world.

RM: Do you feel hopeful for young people in our culture?

MA: Well, personally, I have a preschooler and I see the world through his eyes, so I can't help but be hopeful. But as a developmental psychologist, too, I understand the resilience of human beings. There's a researcher named Ann S. Masten who studies resilience, and she talks about resilience being ordinary magic. Sometimes it's hard for us to think of how ordinary our ability to be resilient is.

Don't get me wrong—I also have moments where I feel very concerned and up in arms because I see certain injustices in the world. But at the same time, I see examples of people who are inspiring and see the world beyond their front door. Think of Greta Thunberg, her climate activism, and many, many other examples of kids in our own backyard, in our neighborhoods and cities who are doing extraordinary work toward creating a compassionate society. We should find ways to elevate their stories, too.

RM: Do you have any specific practical tips for parents on how to raise a kind kid?

MA: One of the things we stress at Greater Good is that it's really important to help kids see the goodness in their own lives on a day-to-day basis. We encourage families to talk about gratitude, perhaps at the dinner table, on the drive home from school, or at some kind of a natural time where the family gathers, where you can talk about three good things in your life and why you're grateful for them.

That capacity to make space for goodness in your life also helps you broaden your reach to connecting with others and being kind to them, even people you don't know, because you have a sense of connection with humanity, and goodness is a part of your life on a day-to-day basis. That's one of the big tips I have to help kids be kind and caring: Think about gratitude often, regularly.

[This interview was edited for length and clarity.]

Beyond the conversation

As Maryam said, sometimes it's easier to impart positive messages or get your kids to open up about their feelings if you share some media with them. Reading a book or watching a movie or show, or even playing a video game together, can kick-start a conversation or provide a fun way to identify which characters are being caring or hurtful, and reinforce your family's values around kindness. Here are some of our favorite picks:

Books That Teach Kids Empathy

From sweet picture books for little ones to The Grapes of Wrath for teens, these books show characters caring about what others are going through.

TV That Inspires Empathy

These shows help kids learn the value of putting themselves in someone else's shoes to understand the feelings and perspective of another person.

50 Movies to Help You Raise a Kind Kid

Kids, adults, and animals model kindness in these entertaining, warmhearted stories, both animated and live action.

Best Empathy Games, Apps, and Websites for Kids

These awesome digital tools help teach kids to think about how other people feel and to emphasize the value of human relationships—even from behind a screen.

Games That Support Kindness and Compassion

Many video games focus on violence over acts of kindness, but these picks can help kids see other viewpoints, celebrate others' traditions, and learn about how tough it is to be bullied or discriminated against.

Nonviolent Video Games

You don't have to bash someone or blow something up to have fun with these games, which focus on exploration, personal growth, or storytelling. Kids will have fun learning, dancing, solving puzzles, playing sports, and more.

Kindness counts

One more idea for nurturing these values in your family's life is to practice random acts of kindness. And in case you need a little help in that department, download Greater Good's Monthly Happiness Calendar or visit the Random Acts of Kindness website, which has hundreds of ideas and activities you can do with kids to spread some joy.

Regan McMahon
Regan has been reviewing children's books for more than 20 years. A journalist and former book editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, she cites as one of her toughest assignments having to read and review the 784-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on deadline in 48 hours. Regan is also a published author whose book Revolution in the Bleachers: How Parents Can Take Back Family Life in a World Gone Crazy Over Youth Sports grew out of her experience keeping up with two athletic kids. She earned a B.A., teaching credential, and master's degree in the teaching of French at the University of California at Berkeley -- reflecting a passion she's had for all things French since reading Eloise in Paris as a child.