Family life can thrive or falter depending on the strength of our routines. As any parent will tell you, we face fewer missed buses, fewer hangry tantrums and more happy kid smiles when critical parts of the day unfold predictably. Too often, we forget that the same routine that makes family life manageable—the rituals and phrases we repeat day after day (after day, after day)—creates the framework for who our children will become. Our kids will remember these little moments as the general feel and flare of their childhood.
Over the years, I've watched for ways to work kindness and compassion into my family's daily routines. These small, day-to-day changes have helped me live my values even during the hectic weeks when we're too busy to volunteer and too tired to get creative with little acts of kindness.
Here are nine daily habits that help create kind kids.
1. Make room for an early morning pause.
The scientific foundation for a daily moment of mindfulness is as expansive as it is overly-cited. According to Scientific American, the one thing nearly all studies on mindfulness can agree upon is that "tuning into the world around you may provide a sense of well-being."
Even those of us who are night owls can recognize the difference a good morning makes. The world feels less hostile when our family builds in a few moments to pause together. You don't need to meditate for ages or share a three-course breakfast each morning. Some families I know simply wake their kids up a half-hour earlier than necessary to allow for a slower pace and a few sleepy-eyed snuggles before the normal morning routine unfolds. At my house, we make it a point to arrive a little early at the bus stop, early enough to take a few deep breathes together and share our goals for the day.
The way we speak to our children shapes the way they understand themselves and ultimately the way they live in the world. Research demonstrates that teaching children to speak and think positively about themselves improves their self-compassion and pro-social behavior.
2. Adopt empowering refrains.
Here are our favorite phrases to empower kind kids. Remember to use them as specifically and honestly as possible. Kids are incredible at detecting insincerity!
Empower kind kids with these big-hearted phrases
- You are such a helpful kid.
- Your kindness (or your big heart) makes me proud.
- Your kindness takes a lot of courage.
- Your kindness makes a real difference.
- I'm proud that you are the kind of person who treats others with compassion and respect.
- I love how curious you are.
- That's interesting. Tell me more about that.
- Fixing your mistakes means you are learning.
- Every problem has a solution. Let's try again.
- You're a good problem solver. How do you think we should do this?
- I'm impressed with how hard you have worked.
3. Celebrate acts of kindness in a concrete way.
Research confirms that accountability is a key way to foster new habits and reach difficult goals. By letting your family know that kindness and helping others is a priority, you're setting high expectations for follow-through.
Try making a visual display with this Kindness Quilt printable from Doing Good Together, a national nonprofit that features many creative ways to share kindness as a family. Or simply make time each day to ask, "Who did you help today?" and "Who helped you?" By sharing your acts of kindness each day, your kids will begin to watch for ways they can be helpful, partly so they have a story to share.
4. Move together daily.
We all know the physical and psychological benefits of exercise. By reserving a half hour or so after dinner to move together, playfully, you give your family a chance to shed the day's stress and reset your minds and bodies for tomorrow.
At my house, this looks different every day. Last week, we took a flashlight walk through the trees behind our house. Last night, we played a raucous game of stuffed animal tag. Whether you're walking through the park, playing soccer, or dancing wildly, this moment of joyful movement will make it easier to share compassion tomorrow.
5. Add a recurring volunteer effort to the calendar.
Of course, making small daily changes doesn't replace the benefits of regular volunteering with your child in your community. Regular volunteering gives kids a strong sense of empowerment, as they see themselves as helpers. When they notice a problem, they tend not to wait for someone else to step in with a solution. This self-reliance and empowerment translate into the courage to stand up for others when social conflict arises.
6. Cut down on unsupervised weekday screen time.
The science behind screen time is still evolving, but a growing body of research is declaring play to be the most essential and most diminishing learning tool of childhood .
If you think about how much time kids spend at school, in transit, and in extracurricular activities, they only have a couple of hours a night to be kids.
Outside climbing trees.
Inside building epic Lego towers.
On the swings arguing with siblings and neighbors over what to do next.
It's incredible how much energy it takes to say no to screen time, but watching the creativity and camaraderie (more or less) my children develop away from their gadgets has been worth it. Plus, I've stuck to this rule often enough that I'm basically the family hero when I agree to break my own rule from time to time.
7. Seek out one good news story to share each day.
As more people feel emotionally depleted by alarming news stories, they begin to feel a greater sense of apathy and cynicism. The Guardian recently reported, "Research by Dr. Denise Baden, an associate professor at Southampton Business School, the University of Southampton, has found that the more negatively people feel after consuming bad news, the less likely they are to voice an opinion or take action to improve the world around them."
Thankfully, solutions-based journalism is becoming more and more common. Visit the magazine Positive News or the Washington Post's Inspired Life for some beautiful examples. Make it a habit to track down and share a newsworthy story of hope and courage. Your whole family will feel more inspired to become change-makers when you make time to notice the important, world-improving work happening right now.
8. Lean into your evening routine.
Research has found that the way an event or experience ends determines the way we feel about that experience . Let's show our children the compassion of a soothing bedtime routine. It's too easy to rush through the bedtime transition with your mental focus already collapsed on the couch in a heap of parental exhaustion. We all do it. We all have had those long days that drive us to just want to be done. When possible, let's resist the urge to rush.
Instead, if we allow ourselves to enjoy the last part of the day, we may all feel more connected, more grateful, and more prepared for the day to come.
I discovered the power of this last year when my daughter asked for "snuggle tickets" for Christmas, so she wouldn't have to beg me to stay a few extra minutes. Ouch, and awwww.
9. Reach for great reads.
Emerging research is demonstrating what book lovers have always known instinctively: reading is an incredible tool for developing empathy, compassion, and insight into the world of others.
One study found that literary fiction, as opposed to popular genre fiction, develops empathy in readers of all ages. So we do need to stretch ourselves and our young readers to read extraordinary books. Not exclusively, but regularly. Up your reading game by seeking out great reads to enjoy as a family.
With persistence, these solid roots of kindness will help our little ones grow into compassionate, helpful, curious, and empowered adults who we'll delight in knowing.
This article originally appeared on Doing Good Together. It was first published here on February 18, 2020.