7 Tips to Avoid Preaching to Your Child

While Still Talking about Big Ideas

7 Tips to Avoid Preaching to Your Child

Apparently, preaching to your kids can unravel all of the good role modeling you do while volunteering as a family. This is a problem. Talking about  the experiences you have while volunteering can be a great way to practice empathy. Trust me, you can avoid preaching while still having a big-hearted conversation with a few simple tips.

Did you catch  Raising a Moral Child in the New York Times this weekend? The findings were illuminating! Role modeling caring behavior teaches generosity perfectly. Great news for all of you wonderful families practicing kindness together.

  • Role modeling selflessness teaches children to be selfless.
  • But preaching generosity to your kids after your great role-modeling behavior, actually makes them less generous.


One of my favorite reasons to be a Big-Hearted Family is the wonderful opportunity to role model and discuss my values with my children. For four years now, I've been intentionally making space on the calendar for my family’s kindness practice, including kindness conversations, and I can tell you, the effort has made a huge difference.

Small acts of kindness are a reflex in my house. They vastly outweigh the sibling battles and petty bickering – though that abounds too, of course. And according to Raising a Moral Child, only 25 percent to around half of that inclination to be kind is genetic.

This means half to 75 percent of our tendency for compassion is taught. Modeled. Practiced.

As parents, we can successfully  nurture the good and raise kids who care and contribute. Big-Hearted Families™, a program from Doing Good Together, helps families volunteering together both out in the community and with small projects right at their kitchen table.

We also put a lot of emphasis on reflection, or talking through your family’s service experiences. The warning about preaching – that telling your kids they should be generous detracts from the impact of role modeling generosity – might cause some parents to shut kindness conversations down altogether.

Don’t abandon big conversations about compassion with your little people. When the mood strikes, kids love feeling heard and knowing their ideas are being taken seriously. Who doesn’t? Your family volunteer experience can lead to some pretty profound discussions.

Today we'll share tips to help you avoid preaching even as you strike up a big-hearted conversation with your kids.

7 tips to help you avoid preaching 

1. Ask questions.

The purpose of reflecting on the service projects and kind acts you've done is not to preach their value. The purpose is to understand the impact (or lack of impact) that you've made  - on others as well as on yourselves. It’s also important to take a moment after each volunteer experience to ask everyone how you might change your project next time. Here are some great basic questions to get you started.

2. Listen.

Put the smart phones out of reach. Banish the unending “to do list” to a vault at the back of your mind. And really listen to your child. She may want to talk through her nervousness about delivering cards at the hospital. He may have a question about a scary medical apparatus he spotted while delivering Meals on Wheels. Or she may want to make a completely unrelated poo joke and move on. That’s okay too. Whatever your kid needs to share, however profound – or not – that’s okay. Your job is to listen.

3. Wonder together.

Try this: I wonder what it would be like to have a body that needed to move slowly? Or I wonder what I would miss most if I was in the hospital for a long time?  While preaching is scientifically guaranteed to counteract your generous role modeling, wondering with your child helps them practice empathy.

Remember, parents can actually help children build their empathy “muscles” by giving them opportunities to practice caring. Wondering about the feelings and experiences of others is a simple, effective way to work those muscles on a regular basis.

4. Answer honestly.

Kids can smell a grown up’s aversion to the truth. And somehow, kids know how to ask the questions we’d rather not answer. Did you really want to spend Saturday morning volunteering to walk for a cause?

Don’t avoid honest answers, even if they make you uncomfortable. The truth is, when we started, I really wanted to be sleeping in, too. But when we got to the Walk for Justice, I was really inspired by all of the other people we met at the event.

5. Be specific.

Dig into the specifics of your experience. Ask for detailed observations. Ask, What did you think when you met XYZ?  or  How could we do [a specific part of the family service moment] better next time?  Talk about the people you met, the moments that surprised you, the moments that embarrassed you, and the moments that make you want to try again – or not.

If you are the writing sort, jot these observations down in a Family Kindness Journal, along with a picture of the event.

If you are the sharing sort, add them to our Storytelling Page or share them with us on Facebook.

Or if you are the contemplative sort, just enjoy the togetherness of your family act of kindness and the discussions it inspires. In my house, these conversations usually pop up days later, when we all get around to the reflection (but not preaching) moment. I love these conversations, even when they eventually into silly kid jokes. In fact, I especially enjoy wen we get to the point where we’re all giggling.

6. Seek professional help.

No, not a therapist, us – rely at Big-Hearted Families™, the family toolbox created by Doing Good Together! No matter what project you’ve taken on, no matter what your interest area, Big-Hearted Families has reflection questions that will help you get started. Did you craft greeting cards for sick children? We have reflection questions for that. Did you take time to donate to Kiva? We have questions for that too! Are you turning your summer lemonade stand into a fundraiser for a cause you love? We can help get that conversation started!

7. Meet kids where they are.

You don’t have to force reflection, let it happen as naturally as possible.

Don’t demand Aristotelian philosophy from your six-year-old, but maybe don’t give up after the first toot joke either.

If you give kids the opportunity to practice thinking about the impact of their actions, not just once but each time you participate in a family act of kindness, they are far more likely to grow into thoughtful, caring people. I've seen this personally in my own kids, who now reflexively ask big questions at the dinner table. And I’m hopeful that this isn't solely because they've grown tired of my go-to conversation starters.

The research bears this out too. “Empathy is a skill like any other human skill,” says University of CambridgeProfessor Simon Baron Cohen. “If you get a chance to practice, you get better at it.”

Wherever you start your family’s kindness practice, include reflection without preaching. You will not only be modeling generosity, you’ll be strengthening their empathy muscles by helping them practice understanding the experiences of others.

Are there any tips you’d like to add? Please share them in the Comments below!


 photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/thelotuscarroll/11854424755/”>Lotus Carroll</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>