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How to Teach Civility During Divisive Times

It's hard enough for adults to do — what about kids?

Published on: May 16, 2017

Two girls fighting over doll

Editor Note:

This blog post originally appeared on the Committee for Children blog on Feb. 24, 2017.

Raising Kind logoIn our changing world, teaching children civility is more important than ever. Civility goes beyond being polite and courteous; it involves listening to others with an open mind, disagreeing respectfully and seeking common ground to start a conversation about differences. By teaching skills like empathy, problem-solving and perspective taking, we can help nurture civility in our children.

Get perspective

Perspective taking is a critical skill for working in groups and resolving interpersonal conflicts. When children don’t stop to think about other people’s perspectives, it’s easy for them to make inaccurate assumptions about others’ intentions. And acting on these assumptions can lead to unnecessary conflict.

Here are a few ways you can teach perspective-taking skills to your child: 

  1. Read books together — Books are a wonderful resource for teaching perspective-taking skills because you can take your time and ask lots of questions to help your child identify how a character might be feeling, spot the clues that reveal the character’s emotions and discuss why the character might be feeling that way. (Psst — a few ideas here.)
  2. Point out someone else’s emotions — Considering how someone else may be feeling in a public or social setting helps children learn to interpret and decode other people’s emotions. Though witnessing another person’s strong emotions can sometimes be uncomfortable, it can also be a wonderful teaching opportunity.
  3. Share your own emotions — Talk with your child about how you’re feeling throughout the day. You can share why you feel certain emotions, and what you can do to problem solve or resolve a situation that’s causing a difficult emotion. This experience not only helps children build their perspective-taking skills, but normalizes both positive and negative emotions and helps develop empathy.

Foster empathy

Empathy — the ability to feel or understand what someone else is feeling — is the foundation for positive interpersonal relationships and healthy communication. Having empathy in tough situations helps children treat others with kindness and respect, and may also help them intervene when another child is being bullied.

Modeling and showing empathy when you interact with your child is the most effective way to teach this important skill. So when your child is having a rough day or misbehaving, make your first response an empathetic one. This might sound like:

  • “It’s so hard when…”
  • “Oh, no…”
  • “Uh-oh…”
  • “Oh, man…”
  • “You look/sound … ” 

Responding with empathy communicates to your child that you hear and understand him or her. When children feel heard, they’re more willing to listen and more open to understanding and identifying with another person’s perspective.

Solve problems together

Both bullies and their victims tend to lack problem-solving skills. Children who tend to avoid being drawn into bullying dynamics, on the other hand, are better able to recognize problems, brainstorm solutions and make connections between their actions and consequences. The following three-step process is one you can use to help guide your child toward solving problems when they arise. 

  1. Listen and validate — Listen empathetically and respond to your child's thoughts and experiences with validation. Encourage your child to tell his or her story. (For example, “Hey buddy, tell me what happened.”) Then reflect back what the child said or paraphrase with something like “It sounds like you're ________.”
  2. Help your child label emotions — It’s important that you allow your child to label his or her own feelings, instead of dictating how to feel. Listen in a way that shows you’re paying attention and taking your child seriously, and don't dismiss any emotions as silly or unimportant. 
  3. Set limits while problem-solving — Set a limit on the behavior or choice your child expresses while acknowledging his or her emotions. For example, say, “It's OK to feel/want ________, but it's not OK to do ________.” Once the limit has been set, ask your child what he or she wanted or needed, then brainstorm together a few different ways to resolve the situation that are both safe and respectful. Help your child evaluate those ideas based on your family's values and then let him or her choose what to do to fix the problem, try again or try the next time the problem occurs.

Acting with civility requires children to be respectful, reflective and self-aware. Learning the skills of perspective taking, empathy and problem-solving helps children understand that their actions and words affect individuals as well as their entire community, encouraging them to rise up and act with civility in tough situations. 

Want more tips at your fingertips? Download a cheat sheet here!

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