How to Raise Truly Caring Kids

Teach kids that caring isn't just an external behaviour
young boy comforting young girl
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We get take delight watching kids when they are full of caring: from the kindness they show siblings, to helping others out, to paying attention in school. We also watch in horror when children are cruel to each other, dominate and bully, or selfishly put their needs first without considering others. What is the difference between caring and uncaring kids? When caring is absent on a consistent basis, is this due to genetics, parenting, school issues, modeling from other kids, or something else within the child themself?

The challenge is that we can’t make sense of uncaring actions until we can make sense of caring ones; that is, where does caring and empathy come from in the first place? How do kids grow up to be socially and emotionally responsible people, and what is the role of adults to make sure they get there?

little girl holding a sign showing she is a volunteer
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Caring is not a self-serving act

There are two primary schools of thought on the development of caring and empathy, and like two sides of a fence, you can only pick one side to be on. One approach is more popular and widely held but it is not supported by current developmental science and neuroscientific research. The other approach is less understood, partly because of new research emerging on the development of the affective (emotion) system. In other words, most parents and educators stand by an approach to raising caring kids that is the least likely to be effective. We should care about this. Research on U.S. youth finds that in comparison to 15 years ago, youth are 40% less likely to show empathy and caring towards others.1 This has untold consequences for our homes, schools, and our communities.

The first approach to cultivating caring kids is based on behaviourism and learning theory. The main idea is that children learn to act maturely and can be trained to behave better. Reinforcements such as positive rewards are used to increase the likelihood of caring behaviour. The critical question that isn’t asked when rewards are motivating the behaviour: Is it really “caring” at all, given that it is a self-serving act? When you act in a caring way to get a reward, then you are really taking care of your needs and not someone else’s. This is the opposite of empathy or altruism and characteristic of narcissism and entitlement. 

Behavioural approach and negative reinforcement

Behaviour and learning theory also believe in the converse power of negative reinforcement or punishment to correct a child’s lack of uncaring actions. Negative reinforcement means you take away something a child cares about or isolate them with time outs to “teach them a lesson they won’t forget.” This approach is based on a belief that pain is a great teacher and that administering unpleasant things will make a child stop being mean, uncaring, rude, or disrespectful. What gets overlooked are the emotions that underlie the behaviour; that is, what is driving a child to hurt someone else? Bad behaviour doesn’t appear out of the blue: it is connected to something that isn’t working for the child, that needs to change, or that the child needs help to adapt to. Without understanding the underlying issue or having words to express what isn’t working, a child won’t develop a greater capacity to handle their more “troublesome” emotions.

The problem with a learning approach to caring is that it misses the emotion that should drive it. Rewarding caring teaches kids that they can act in a caring fashion without feeling the emotion that should root it. You can get caring behaviour out of a child but it doesn’t mean the child is caring, it could just be a performance for the sake of reward. What happens to a child’s caring when the adults are no longer rewarding the behaviour? Does the child do the “right thing” when there is no personal benefit attached to it? In other words, you can make a child say sorry, but it doesn’t mean they feel remorse. You can make them say thank you, but it doesn’t mean they feel gratitude. You can make them say many things, but this doesn’t mean the words are connected to the caring that should be at the root of them.

Little girl comforting little boy
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Caring from the inside out

The perspective of developmentalists (who study how kids grow), as well as neuroscience, is that you don’t have to teach a child to care. Caring is already in us and ready to come out if the environment supports its development. The question we should ask is: How can we get a child’s caring emotions to the surface? Fortunately, the developmentalists have some answers for us.

The instinct to care about people and things is unlocked when kids feel cared for. This caring can come from a teacher, parents, siblings, grandparents, or a pet. It is feeling cared for by others that opens up the instincts and movement to be a caretaker to others. When you feel loved and taken care of by others, your capacity to love and care for people and things is unlocked. You don’t have to teach a child to care for a doll, their parents, or a sibling. These caring actions come to the surface when the conditions support their development and expression.

Developing genuine empathy

The developmentalists are also clear that empathy isn’t something you can directly teach. Empathy is being able to take another person’s perspective into account and see the world from their perspective. Empathy requires not only caring but also the accompanying growth in the pre-frontal cortex that usually arrives between five to seven years old with ideal development. A child needs to be able to take two things, two people, or two thoughts and emotions into account before they can truly be capable of empathy. This won’t be possible until sufficient brain development has occurred. Young kids are still trying to figure out their own story before being bombarded with the stories and needs of so many other people. Empathy is a developmental milestone that most kids should be nearing as they enter kindergarten or first grade.

Growing caring kids with a developmental approach

  • Caring kids feel cared for by adults in their life.

  • Caring is an emotion which needs to be felt, not taught.

  • A lack of caring in a child suggests an emotional issue that needs to be addressed.

  • We need to keep our own caring when dealing with a child who has lost theirs.

  • We should move away from rewarding kids for caring behaviour because it is no longer genuine caring when self-interest is involved.

We all want caring kids, and uncaring acts should concern us. The solution lies in how we care for our kids, whether they feel cared for by us, if their hearts are soft, and whether they can feel vulnerable emotions. Children’s hearts can become hardened when faced with a lack of caretaking by parents or when they have been too wounded by others. Caring for a child with warmth, love, connection, relationship, generosity, and invitation is the key to unlocking their potential for caring. Protecting our relationship with them, ensuring competing relationships to devices or peers remain in check, and assuring them that they can rest safely in our care is the key.