I like to think I am decent mom: I feed my kids, keep them hydrated, do homework with them and Uber them to activities; I make sure they brush their teeth, do chores and sleep. If I was getting a report card, I would grade myself a solid B. (A-grade parents never yell. They live in the land of unicorns and lollipop trees.)

But, am I raising my kids to be kind human beings?

You might think your kids are kind. They have manners and don’t tackle random children in the schoolyard. But kindness and empathy are not in abundance in our world – think mean girls at the age of five – and are skills that must be developed throughout our lives. Empathy is our ability to see things from another point of view and have that perspective guide your behaviour.

In the 2018 book The Power of Kindness Dr. Brian Goldman says that empathy is made up of several components: emotional empathy, which is what is found in our DNA – and what motivates us to help others; cognitive empathy, where we understand how another person is feeling, and compassion empathy, where we are spontaneously moved to help someone. When seen this way, you can see how you might think your kids are kind – but will they invite the shy, awkward kid with no friends to play with them at recess or just think about it? Will they even think about it at all?

The good news is you can train your kids to be kind. Mirror neurons in the brain are particularly active in childhood – when your kids observe an action, their brains will respond as if they are doing the action themselves. This creates neural pathways that provide a foundation for behaviour that can stick throughout a lifetime. But, like any behavior it has to be reinforced. Like adults, kids learn by repeating behaviours until they become habitual. So, if you want your kids to be kind, model kind behaviour and rinse, lather and repeat.  

This time of year, we are reminded of ways to give back and be kind. My kids’ school is engaged in a “12 days of kindness” project where they are reminded to hold doors open from one another and held a giant school-wide bake sale to raise money for a local shelter; my social media is filled with parents teaching their kids kindness, like CityLine Host Tracy Moore, who models how to give back by spending school nights packing snack packs to hands out to the homeless, and filling boxes for the Shoebox Project, a homeless charity she supports. “I feel privileged and blessed. As a reporter, I covered countless stories on poverty. These are small efforts but it is something,” says Moore.

Small efforts often yield big results. Here are a six ways to encourage kindness and empathy in your kids – this holiday season, and throughout the year:  

1. Brainstorm ways to spread kindness

If your kids are old enough, empower them to think of ways to spread kindness. From giving up seats on the bus, to smiling at strangers and writing cards for seniors in care homes, Google has a wealth of ideas for ways to spread kindness. (We’ve got some great ideas here, too!) If you are a parent who leaves notes in lunch bags, why not get them to write notes to their best friends or – better yet – that shy kid who doesn’t have as many friends? Encourage them to organize playdates that are inclusive. If you have little ones, teach them sharing is caring from an early age.

2. Donate – time, money and things

Reach out to local charities and find out if you can volunteer as a family. Many animal shelters take old bedding for pets and are often looking for homes to foster kittens. If there is a local agency that organizes food for the homeless, could you bake cookies? Go to the dollar store and invest in mason jars for your kids’ allowance and have them divide their loonies by a save, spend and donate principle – every few months, have them choose a new charity. Purge toys and clothes every season; Canadian Diabetes will pick up right from you home.

3. Have a “random acts of kindness” bowl

Buy a fish bowl and fill it with post-in notes or index cards with Random Acts of Kindness. Pick one day each week and make it the family “Random Act of Kindness” day – switch it up and have the adults do it too. Pay for someone’s coffee, shovel your neighbor’s snow, hold the door open, write their teacher a thank you note.

4. Keep a gratitude journal

If your kids can read and write, they can keep a gratitude journal: every evening before bed, write down five things that you are grateful for – shelter, food in the fridge, a warm bed to sleep in, family, health, their pets, their school, their friends, getting an A on a test, having a hot chocolate after school. Research shows a gratitude practice improve your health, and people with a gratitude practice exercise more and live longer.

5. Give thanks at meals and at bedtime

It is very simply to pause before a meal and give thanks – even if you only thank the farmer who grew the vegetables on your plate. At bedtime, have your children do “Roses and Thorns” – the best and the worst parts of their day” and finish the evening with a moment of thanks for their life. Even if things are hard, you can always find something good in your day.

6. Learn about the world

Did you know that one goat can provide a family with protein and income to help them survive and thrive? According to World Vision, one dairy goat can give up to 1,000 litres of milk each year. Goats can be bred to produce two or three kids a year, and eventually can multiply into a herd – they eat grass and leaves and can exist in harsh climates. Buy a globe and show your kids which parts of the world do not have enough to eat; which countries have been ravaged by drought in the last few years, and how the world is not an equal place. Although many of us grew up with the “eat the food on your plate…there are starving children in Africa” teaching point from our parents, how many of us were motivated to do something about it? If we are going to change the world, our children need to know that there are many places where kids don’t have their own iPads.

Teaching your kids to think beyond themselves will turn them into humans who are ultimately less selfish, and want to make the world a better place. And in the end, isn’t this what we all want?

Erin Phelan is a health and fitness professional, personal trainer and writer based out of Toronto. Find her at www.80-percent.com and follow her on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.