Valentine's Day is a natural time to nurture your child's kind heart and giving nature. Even toddlers are intrinsically motivated to be kind, recent studies in child development suggest, so do your best to encourage those tendencies.
This time of year, nothing spells love like homemade hearts snipped out of folded paper. With your kids, make cards and paper chains to share with residents of a nursing home or children in a hospital's pediatric unit. Recycle red, white and pink wrapping paper and leftover envelopes, and use cookie cutters for tracing.
Let your child see you caring about others, even with something as simple as a card for an ill neighbor or a meal for a new mommy. Modeling kindness, whether as a parent, caregiver or teacher, makes the behavior contagious, says sociologist Christine Carter, author of "Raising Happiness" (Ballantine, 2011). When we see someone else act in a kind way, we're more likely to feel an impulse to help out, too.
What most inspires a child to grow up caring about others? The caring that the child receives, says the American Psychological Association. When children feel they have a secure home base, they're more likely to venture out and pay attention to others. When they feel deprived of love and nurturing, they tend to focus too much on themselves and their own needs, the association says.
When looking for opportunities to show kindness, popular children's books can serve as inspiration. For example, teachers and parents often read Audrey Penn's "The Kissing Hand" (Tanglewood Press, 2007) to comfort new preschoolers or kindergartners. In the story, a little raccoon is afraid to start school, so his mother gives him a kiss in his palm. If he feels scared or lonely, he can put his hand to his cheek and feel his mother's love.
Inspired by the book, creators of the Kissing Hand Mitten Project are collecting handmade mittens with hearts sewn or knitted into the palm.
The special mittens will be given to children in elementary schools in Newtown, Conn., during a reading of "The Kissing Hand" by the author. Each elementary school student in Newtown will also receive a copy of the book, donated by the publisher.
The goal for the project is to collect about 2,000 pairs of mittens by the end of February. Knitters from all across the country have been donating mittens. If you knit or sew, let your little ones help by picking yarn or fabric colors and writing notes. "Kissing hand" mittens can be sent to: The Kissing Hand Mitten Project, 93 E. High St., East Hampton, CT 06424. Check the project's Facebook site for updates: facebook.com/ TheKissingHandMittenProject.
Children's books abound with teachable moments, reminding us that a simple hug or a big heart drawn in the snow are gifts. It's the little things that add up to a secure home base for kids.
Betsy Flagler, a journalist based in Davidson, N.C., is a mother and preschool teacher. If you have tips or questions, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call Parent to Parent at 704-236-9510.