Help kids stock up on kindness, boundaries, and personal problem-solving skills

New school shoes? Check. Enough tees and leggings? Check. Notebooks and (maybe) Chromebooks? Check. Kids definitely need to be well-provisioned for school, but also be sure to supply them with tools for social situations.

For example, remind them that anyone can add sunshine to someone’s day and make them feel momentarily less alone in the world. A meme circulating social media recently reminded kids who are going back to school to smile and say hi if they see a student struggling to make friends, a student being bullied, a student who is shy or not part of the “in” crowd, or a student eating lunch alone. Your child might also ask to sit with them at the lunch table or include them in an activity. This also applies to “the new kid” who may have just relocated.

In terms of bullying, many schools are now teaching kids to be “upstanders not bystanders,” meaning that they stand up for anyone being mistreated instead of being a passive bystander, which is essentially indirectly participating. A post to the Child Abuse and Prevention Services (CAPS) website titled “Are You a Bystander or an Upstander?” offers some specific ways of safely standing up for someone, emphasizing that “It takes courage to speak up on someone’s behalf. But just think: by doing so, you are becoming a person of character and also helping someone else.” Consider doing some role-playing with your child, posing some scenarios and asking what they would do and how they could respond, including how they would want others to respond if the situation were reversed.

Of course, most kids have also heard of really frightening instances of violence and know that many of those responsible have had serious mental health issues. Along with “be nice” messages, it’s important to affirm kids’ gut instincts and personal boundaries and stress that they need to talk to a teacher—and you—about any disturbing conversations they hear or scary behaviors they witness. You don’t want to make them override their feelings in an effort to be nice if anyone, including a classmate, makes them feel uncomfortable or unsafe.

A post to AT (Anxious Toddlers) Parenting Survival titled, “5 Ways We Teach Kids NOT to Trust Their Gut Instincts,” by Natasha Daniels, offers some excellent ideas to consider. Among them, she suggests we unfortunately teach kids not to listen to their inner voices when we make them hug people they’d rather not hug, teach them they must listen to all adults, and teach them to always be polite and not shout. She offers succinct ways of walking through essential “there’s a time and a place” exceptions to these broad guidelines.

No child wants to be a tattletale and can struggle with tell/don’t tell. Back in 2015 a post to the Cuppacocoa blog titled, “Teaching Kids When It’s OK to Tell on Someone (and When NOT to!),” includes tips for when to just let something go and how to help kids problem-solve, as well as scenarios that are gray areas.

Though we live in an imperfect, somewhat unpredictable world, everyday, ordinary kindness goes far in making it a sweeter place. Maria Shriver, in the wake of losing her young niece to suicide recently, shared a message on Instagram that is great advice, even in far less heartbreaking situations: “Be gentle with others, as so many are fragile and struggling.” She added, “Actually, I think it’s best to assume everyone is struggling, so treat everyone with love, tenderness, and compassion.”