Labeling Kids as “Kind”
In the past several weeks, Tom and I have gotten in the habit of using the word “kind” when describing actions and interactions with Kieran. For example:
- Kieran hands his friend a toy. We comment, “oh that was kind, Kieran!”
- Kieran grabs a toy from his friend, the friend cries hysterically. We comment, “Kieran, let’s be kind to your friend. If you’d like the toy, why don’t you ask for a turn?”
Those are simplistic/generic examples, but you get the gist. The “kind” label has grated on my nerves since it entered our vocabulary. But I never stopped to think about why I didn’t like it, and I didn’t do anything to change it.
Until I heard Kieran using it to describe his own actions and to seek approval. Several times Kieran has done something (yes, something “kind”) and then looked at me: “mama, Kieran kind? That kind!”
It really weighed on my heart.
But Isn’t Being Kind a Good Thing?
Conventional parenting might raise its collective eyebrows at my dilemma: why would I not want my child to internalize “kindness,” and even more, to want to be kind? Let me give you a couple of my reasons, then I’d love to open this up for debate.
1) I want Kieran to know that I love him unconditionally: I do not want to attach a value judgment to Kieran’s character whenever he performs an action – good or bad. When he hears “that was kind” or “that was not kind,” he’s not going to just equate the action with the label – he will try that label on for size to see if it fits him.
Moreover, when we label something as “kind” or “unkind” – or to take it a step further, “good” or “bad” – a child might hear us saying “I like (love) you when you are kind/good. I do not like (love) you when you are not kind/bad.”
I love Kieran. Period. I love him when he is laughing, when he is sad and sobbing, when he is frustrated and kicking, when he is angry and screaming. I love him regardless of whether he hits his friends. I love him whether he does or does not pick up his toys. My goal is that he know without a doubt that I love him at all times.
Calling him “bad,” withdrawing my affection, lecturing him for being “unkind,” those do not convey unconditional love. And don’t kid yourself that children understand the concept of “unconditional love” or “I love you even when I’m angry/punishing you.” Children don’t have those cognitive skills yet.
But (my dear husband and conventional parenting wisdom argue) how are you supposed to teach a child values and social niceties without labeling things as “good” or “bad”? That brings me to my second point.
2) Kieran does not need me to label his actions in order to “learn”: let’s go back to the example of Kieran taking his friend’s toy. Here are two ways I could deal with it:
- I could point out that he was not kind in grabbing the toy. I could even take it away and tell him that we need to give it back so that the other child will be happy; or
- I could mirror what Kieran was feeling – I could focus on his needs. “You really wanted that car. You wanted it even though Joshua had it. You were frustrated that Joshua wouldn’t give it to you.” (Kieran says “yes” angrily and watches Joshua cry.) “It is frustrating when two people want to play with one thing. Joshua – I’m sorry that Kieran took that toy. Here, let me get you this blue car. Kieran, when you are done with the red car, will you please give Joshua another turn?”
Kieran does not need me to hammer the point home that he wasn’t “kind.” It is apparent in the tears streaming down his friend’s face. He sees me address his needs (showing him unconditional love even in the face of the typical toddler storm), and he sees me address his friend’s needs. He even sees me apologize, which our society practically demands.
Calling his action “unkind” only serves to shame him further. He already feels ashamed – or at least scared and upset – because of the reaction he elicited from his friend.
I’ve tried this both ways. And in my experience, the more neutral and loving I am, the less shame I make Kieran feel, the more likely he is to turn over the toy – to try to soothe his friend’s tears. My loving response gives him the freedom to choose to be “kind”; it is not coerced.
And really, do you want your child to feel pressure or coercion to be kind? Or do you just want her to be kind for kindness’s sake?
What Say You?
I’m interested in what you all have to say. Tom and I had a discussion about this over dinner, and his point was that “your reactions, whether you label them as ‘kind’ or not, are telling him he is kind or not kind.”
To an extent, I can see his point and agree with the sentiment. But I really feel like there is a difference between observing what is going on, loving your child through any situation, and giving her room to make her own choices – and the alternative – labeling her actions as “kind” or “unkind” and pressuring her to act in a certain way.
Yes, both ways are going to impart elements of social graces, “right and wrong,” things that we approve of and disapprove of. And that’s ok! That’s learning.
But do we have to label in order for our children to learn?
And maybe I should clarify here before anyone makes the generalization: no, I’m not saying that we should never use the words “kind” or “nice” when talking to their children. Please don’t go to that extreme. I’m just talking about using the words too much (which is what I think we did since our two year old suddenly became worried about whether anything he did was “kind”).
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"Labeling Kids as “Kind”"
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