Parents, Be Kind! Your Kids Are Watching

News flash: Parents aren’t perfect! 

All right, this isn’t actually news. Any parent who has lain awake at night replaying in his or her mind a regrettable lack of self-control—a harsh tone, a sarcastic comment, a slammed door, or worse—knows this all too well. Parenting is hard, and not one of us does it flawlessly.

But if we think our kids don’t notice when their parents or other adults behave unkindly—and that it doesn’t affect them—we’re kidding ourselves. In a recent Highlights State of the Kid™ survey, Highlights asked 2,000 kids ages 6 to 12 if they have ever seen their parents or other adults acting unkindly or saying mean things. A majority of respondents—67 percent—told us that they have indeed.

We also asked kids how this made them feel, and 93 percent reported a negative reaction. Forty-nine percent said it made them uncomfortable, with 43 percent saying they felt sad. Other answers were “scared,” “confused,” “embarrassed,” “surprised,” and even “angry.”

When we asked kids where they had seen adults acting unkindly, 37 percent said they observed it in the car, 27 percent said they heard it when adults were on the phone, and 24 percent said they saw adults behaving unkindly on television.

Make no mistake: kids don’t miss much.

They are watching when a driver in another car gestures rudely when he speeds past us. They hear us when we angrily hang up on a telemarketer. They can detect the snark when we’re arguing with our spouse. And, increasingly in today’s growing culture of incivility, our kids observe people with power and fame publicly insult or belittle others. Wherever it’s happening—from the White House to the local athletic field—incivility is registering with our kids. Yet, we know that it’s what parents do that leaves the most lasting impression.

It can be a strain to model kindness and caring in times of great political divisiveness and a growing me-first culture. Parents are busy, stressed people. When a plan or schedule goes off the rails, the wish to kick the proverbial cat or react with another negative emotional response is understandable. But if, as the old adage goes, trying to take back unkind words is like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube, what can we do after we deliver a regrettable outburst or a thoughtless comment or deed within the earshot of our children?

Tempting as it may be to let it go and hope they forget, we should own the mistake and create a teachable moment. If we can circle back with our kids and confess that, upon reflection, we realize that we blew it, we can turn a negative example into something good.

By naming the emotion we were feeling at the time (“I was angry that we were going to be late”), we can help our kids learn to identify the emotions in themselves that might trigger unkind behavior.

By acknowledging that we behaved inappropriately (“It was rude to call the other driver a name”), we can admit that the situation actually called for self-control and better problem solving (“I should have left the house earlier to allow enough time”).

And to show we plan to walk the talk, we can tell our kids how we plan on making amends—whether that’s an apology to the offended party or a vow to do better next time.

As a parent, it can be difficult to admit to our kids that we behaved unkindly when we insist that they be kind. But it can be very powerful for a child to hear a parent say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t show much self-control in that moment.” An apology can convey both humility (“I’m not perfect”) and strength (the courage to admit a mistake and a resolve to do better)—two attributes we hope to instill in our kids. As writer Margaret Lee Runbeck once said, an apology “can transform the clumsiest moment into a gracious gift.”  An honest conversation like this can help kids understand that we are not perfect and we don’t expect them to be perfect. But we do expect them to try always to be kind.

The good news is that kids want to see more caring and empathy in our culture. When we asked our young State of the Kid survey respondents to name the one thing they would change in the world, more than half of the responses related to kindness. We can help kids see that they can be agents for change by positively engaging in the world—if we remember that they learn best by watching us.

Christine French Cully

Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....