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  • Writer's pictureRaelene Ostberg, M.Ed.

Teaching Toddlers to Be Kind

Updated: Jan 30

If you have a toddler in your life, you know they are not always kind! You may have been informed your child bit at childcare, or seen a toddler touch a baby gently and then instantly go in for a hair pull, or observed a sweet young girl throw down a fellow childcare peep... or, like me, had a toddler run excitedly toward you, only to take both hands and drive them into your face. UHG! Toddler aggression and physical expression of feelings can not only hurt us, but also drive us crazy! So, how do we teach these little beings to be kind? Watch Naptime Nugget 51, read some of the tips below, and access resources like the great video by Conscious Discipline below.

In Part 1 - We consider how to teach toddlers to be kind in everyday moments with fun activities. Check out NN #52 for Part 2 - Promoting Toddler Kindness During Difficult Moments.

1) WHY is it difficult for toddlers to be kind?

Well, consider when you might find it difficult to be kind. For me, it is when I am experiencing strong feelings, feeling stressed, or when someone has been mean to me. During Naptime Nuggets, Jackie, home childcare provider, also noticed children might not be kind when bored, hungry, tired, or sick.

Another reason? Toddlers have not developed the higher level thinking skills and ability to control impulses, feel empathy for others, know what to do with big feelings (including curiosity), and manage their stress in group settings. They also lack the necessary language skills to "use their words".

What can you do before toddler aggression occurs to build their capacity to act kindly? Get started today! It will be worth the effort!

1) Seek "joint attention" with the child

Our youngest start out seeing other children more as objects than other humans and are actually quite self-centered! They may kick a box just as they may kick a child. Poking someone's eye simply seems interesting to young tots (especially when a big reaction follows)! Meet with a mutual gaze, looking at each other or an object. Then, when your attention is synced, show what you want the child to see, hear, or feel. We can use joint attention to develop understanding and help toddlers learn to connect, attach, love, and be kind to others.

You can use opportunities to build a strong bond. For example, when you are going to take the youngster from her father's arms, you might say, "Mary, can I hold you?" and invite her to your arms. Tune in and wait until the child leans in and opens her arms. This is modeling respect and kindness for others, as well as building a strong attachment as you follow the little one's cues. Even infants will send a message if they want you to hold them or give them space! Take time to tune in and connect, as invited by the infant.

2) SYNC to teach the lesson on kindness during that interaction

  • SHARE! If the child goes to take a toy from you, do not just give it up! Use the joint attention to teach - "Mommy has it. My turn. Mommy plays with it." Within a few seconds, say, "OH! NOW it is YOUR turn! YAY. Mommy is kind". Take the mutual-gaze opportunity to reinforce and get excited about "giving" and "kindness".

  • PLAY. Use circle time to practice kind behaviors. During this wonderful video, Becky Bailey, Conscious Discipline, explains, describes, and acts out how to do Baby Story Time in a way that teaches toddlers to be kind. If you wondering... yes, it is WORTH IT! :)

  • Practice and praise giving! Give a toy to the toddler and say "GIVE!" Then encourage them to give it back - saying "GIVE" and encouraging the motion with your nonverbals. Literally will the child to give it to you with positive energy (like you would during peekaboo or another game). Reinforce, "YES! GIVING! Giving is FUN!"

  • Provide care opportunities with the baby doll. Encourage the toddler to put a bandaid on the “hurt” baby. Have a baby bath station and other activities where you can practice and reward kind behavior! Get excited about the use of "gentle hands" as you show the actions with your own doll.

Toddlers have a LOT to learn. It will be the hundreds of wonderful and kind actions, activities, and modeling you do that will make all the difference. Most of the brain development each child has in a lifetime happens between 0 and 3 years. Never underestimate your power as a BRAIN BUILDER! Love and kind attention is a HUGE brain-building gift. So, keep lovin' up those toddlers!

Side note: We see toddlers struggle. They hit, bite, scream, and push to get a toy, space, and communicate strong feelings. But, at their core, toddlers are kind. They do want to help. Here is some of the evidence:

Enjoy! :)

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