S ome children are born with generous, kind natures. They naturally intuit the needs and feelings of others, nurturing those both younger and older. They’re a pleasure for parents to raise, teachers to teach, and peers, siblings, and others to interact with. Too bad they’re such a rare breed.

Most children aren’t born this way. On the contrary, the average child is out for himself. He wants his parents’ undivided attention, he wants his toys and his siblings’ toys, he wants his turn all the time, and he has his moods — times when he doesn’t feel like responding to those speaking to him and times when he just feels like bothering people. And this is not a difficult, challenged, or challenging child; this is just your average kid.

A Mean Streak

“Mommy! He’s bothering meee!”

“Please stop pulling her hair. Go and read your book.”

“Mommy! He’s still bothering meee!”

“Tzvi, please read your book in your bedroom now.”

Why was Tzvi pulling his sister’s hair? Ultimately, because she exists. Oh, there might have been some other compelling reason like she was in the same room as he was or he was bored or tired, or it was raining outside, but bottom line, there is no satisfactory explanation — apart from his childish “mean streak.”

Yes, children are often mean to each other. Nonetheless, calling a child “mean” — even when it’s true — will only help organize that cluster of unkind behaviors even more strongly in his brain and thus in his behavioral repertoire.

The rule is that we never use a negative label (no matter how accurate) to address a loved one’s behavior (as in “Please don’t be mean to your sister”). Instead, we simply ask for what we want (as in, “Please go play in another room”).

However, we digress. The point we are discussing is why children aren’t always nice to each other in the first place.

Can’t They Just Get Along?

“When all the cousins are playing together, things typically go well for the first 20 minutes. But inevitably, the complaints and fights kick in. One kid isn’t sharing, the other isn’t answering when I talk to her, this one is pushing, that one called someone else a name.... Honestly! Why can’t these kids just get along?”

Ignoring, for a moment, the fact that married couples also seem to have difficulties getting along, let’s try to answer this question. On the other hand, maybe we shouldn’t ignore the fact that adults have similar problems. Not only couples, but also extended family members, entire communities, and the nations of the world all seem to have trouble negotiating nicely, sharing, and “being nice.” Is it possible that our expectations of children are a tad too high?

Teaching Kindness

If we’re expecting children to be routinely “nice” to each other then, yes, our expectations are way off. It turns out that being “nice” requires a degree of emotional intelligence that most kids — and many adults — lack. Being nice requires a sophisticated understanding of the impact of our communication on others, as well as an advanced set of interpersonal skills.

Most of us spend a lifetime trying to develop our own capacity for niceness. We’re always trying to become better parents, better spouses, and better human beings. While none of us has yet reached perfection, we’re still able (and obligated) to help our children step onto the same path of self-improvement. Our job is not to make our children “nice” but rather to introduce them to the beliefs and practices they can then spend their own lives developing.

First, we need to teach them the concept that meanness is unacceptable — both to us and to Hashem. Second, pointing out the tears or cries of distress that their behavior has caused can help children make a connection between their own actions and the feelings of others. Third, we want to show children how their acts of kindness impact on others, stressing the joy they can cause through sharing, caring, and playing nicely. Celebrating and rewarding kind behavior is one of our most powerful methods for increasing it.

Finally, we have to accept that the tendency to be unkind is normal in human beings; no matter what we do, some children will learn the art of kindness more slowly than others. (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 542)