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Why Teaching Your Kids to “Be Nice” Blocks Their Empathy

I’ve always cringed at the idea of telling my son to “be nice” or to “be good” because to me, those instructions are intended to get your child to change his behavior to meet someone else’s approval, regardless of how he’s feeling or what he needs. 

Perhaps that’s not every parent’s intention, but because my own experience of being taught to be “nice” at a young age contributed to automatically overriding my feelings and needs in favor of pleasing others, the whole idea of telling my son to be nice feels like a slippery slope to creating a people pleaser. And while I want him to be kind and empathetic, I also definitely want him to march to the beat of his own drum.

Empathy, Being “Nice” and the Nervous System

Humans are hardwired (in their nervous system) to need (and want) connection. When our kids have their needs met in a securely attached relationship, they’ll develop empathy and learn to be considerate. Having the repeated experience of their caregiver/parent acknowledge their experiences with empathy helps them to stay connected to their heart and emotions. It’s this connection to heart and feelings that causes them to automatically extend empathy to another person who is hurting.

They’ll do this because it’s been role modelled for them, and also because they haven’t had to put up a protective wall to prevent the pain of not having had their feelings recognized and acknowledged. They can feel their own emotions and body sensations. And because humans have mirror neurons, they’ll feel others’ painful emotions be capable of reaching out with compassion.

Teaching our kids to be “nice” in the absence of acknowledging their emotions can disconnect them from their feelings in order to attain approval and stay connected to their parents (tribe). This is because we’re focusing on their behaviour and requiring them to override their emotions in order to be obedient.

When we expect our kids to be obedient regardless of their feelings, they will often obey even if they’ve initially resisted because their reptilian brain knows that they need the approval of their tribe (parents/family) to survive. This is subconscious. So, they obey, even if it costs them their connection to their body.

This experience, often repeated throughout childhood, creates foundational nervous system wiring from which they automatically look for others’ approval and gradually lose touch with their body sensations.

They’ll learn to please others rather than following their heart emotions and gut instincts without even realizing it. When they can’t feel their heart or body sensations, they’re “nice” because they should be. Also, they’ll tend to ignore their own needs while caring for others’ needs because you they can’t feel their own very well.

If you want your kids to be empathetic and considerate, teach them to stay connected to their feelings rather than telling them to be “nice”.

This keeps them connected to their hearts and they’ll naturally extend kindness and caring to others because they want to, not because they should. You won’t even have to tell them to do it. They’ll feel it.

Suggested steps to take when your child is being “unkind”:

  1. Start by finding out how he’s feeling, and acknowledging and validating his feelings.
  2. Accept his feelings and his expression of them (while maintaining safety).
  3. If he has an unmet need, identify that and help him meet the need (if your child is very young, sometimes it takes a bit of guessing and detective work to determine the underlying need).
  4. Then, if still necessary, tell your child (and consistently role model), how he could both meet his need and act kindly towards others in future similar situations.

Fostering our kids’ genuine empathy from their heart connection endures over time and will serve them well in their relationships, school life, and life work. It will also create more compassion and connection in humanity as a whole.

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