Cat Larrison wasn’t feeling well when her five-year-old thought of a way to help. “He came up and licked my arm!” Larrison says. “It was as sweet as it was soggy.”
Her son was imitating one of his favorite animals: a dog. But a pooch isn’t the only creature that children might observe behaving “kindly.” And experts say that by observing and copying some of that behavior, kids can develop empathy, self-esteem, patience, and more.
The secret seems to be that kids naturally relate to animals. “Humans are complex, so their behaviors can have many layers,” says psychologist Hilary Kratz of La Salle University. “But when kids see an animal do something, it simplifies things in a way that’s more accessible: ‘If a dog can do this, I can do this.’”
It’s important to note that what appears to be “kind” behavior among animals might really be adaptive behaviors that help the animals to thrive. For instance, popular videos make it look like tortoises help overturn buddies, yet experts say this could actually be courtship behavior. Still, many new studies suggest animals’ emotions are a lot richer than scientists once thought.
And when your little critter understands an action as being kind, it might be enough to inspire good deeds—and the inner growth that goes with them. “Children often see traits in animals that they admire and want to emulate them—for example, being powerful like a lion or cute like a bunny,” Kratz says. “Seeing animals engage in positive social behaviors can encourage children to do the same.” Read on to discover five animal behaviors that might inspire your kids to kindness.
Nurture like an elephant.
Juvenile female elephants help teach younger ones to stand, walk, and swim; they’ll even respond to calves’ distress signals. (Any caregiving provided by nonparents is officially called “alloparenting.”) The extra mothering gives the calves a higher chance of survival, and the juveniles gain parenting skills.
How your child can act like an elephant: Your kid doesn’t have to be babysitting age to express nurturing behavior. If your child sees another struggling with something, like reading, suggest they jump in and help. “One of my kids just learned to read, so she’s helping her little sister with sight words,” Kratz says. Or you can assign your kid a caregiving job for a pet, like a weekly brushing (or a doll’s bedtime routine for really young children).
What kids will gain: When children care for another’s needs, they learn to think about how the other person is feeling and thinking. “That can promote compassion and patience,” Kratz says. A child who nurtures also learns responsibility, which builds confidence, says Jacqueline Rhew, licensed clinical professional counselor and cohost of the Successful Parenting podcast.
Caretaking can also promote empathy because the older child will be able to reflect on things that were hard for them when they were younger but no longer are. It can even help strengthen skills your kids might still be learning. “One of the best ways to consolidate learning is to teach a skill to someone else,” Kratz says.
Socialize like an orca.
When different pods of orcas meet in the ocean, they splash, roughhouse, and vocalize. Researchers think these friendly social interactions might help groups of orcas work out their differences to prevent fighting.
How your child can act like an orca: Encouraging kids to interact with children they might not normally hang around with can be overwhelming for them. So before setting them loose at the park with new kids, take some controlled first steps. That could mean attending a sports game at a friend’s school, taking part in a cultural event, or joining a community fundraiser. "My daughter actually attended a dog wedding," Rhew says. “It may sound silly but she loved it, and the event brought a lot of different children together.”
What they’ll gain: Rhew says getting children to socialize with kids from different social or cultural groups can be powerful for the child. “It shows that we can celebrate each others’ differences as much as the similarities,” she says. But connecting with others also helps people feel included—and that can be a huge boost for self-esteem. “It’s about being part of a larger community and being included,” Rhew says. “And the more you feel included, the better you feel about yourself.”
Console like a raven.
Ongoing research suggests that when wild ravens get into fights, other ravens send friendly calls to the loser, edge closer, and eventually groom them. Researchers call these “reconciliation behaviors,” and they appear to happen among ravens that know each other.
How your child can act like a raven: Encourage children to think about the positive things that have happened in a bad situation. For instance, if a friend drops a fly ball, encourage your child to think about something the friend did well. “Your child might say, ‘You had a rough day, but you’re getting better and better,’” Kratz says. Rhew also suggests complimenting someone on the losing side for things like working hard or being nice.
What they’ll gain: Being kind to a rival will teach a child empathy, but it can also help children deal with their own disappointment when things don’t go quite right; they’ll be able to see the brighter side because they've already shown it to others. “It reinforces the idea that there are more important things in life than winning,” Kratz says.
Team up like coyotes and badgers.
Scientists have observed coyotes and badgers working together to catch prey like ground squirrels. The badger can catch the squirrel when it runs underground from the coyote; the coyote can nab the prey if the badger is flushing it out. Although they don’t share the meal, both animals snag more meals when they hunt together. Videos like this one suggest that these hunting pairs actually become friendly to each other over time.
How your child can act like this animal duo: Children can get frustrated when a task seems overwhelming. Kratz suggests first pointing out that everyone, even grown-ups, face challenging tasks, then describe one of your own in which you needed help. Then acknowledge the child’s frustration, stay positive, and make a suggestion: “This was harder than we expected! But you’re doing great reading the instructions. Lila does an amazing job at finding supplies. I bet you’d work even faster if you teamed up.” Kratz adds: “Praise your child for taking risks, putting in effort, seeking support, and working collaboratively.”
What they’ll gain: Working as a team toward a common goal helps children learn to consider different ideas and points of view—and compromise when those ideas are different from their own. (Is tape better than glue? What about starting from the bottom instead of from the top?) “It helps kids appreciate that there are many ways of doing things,” Kratz says. “It fosters what we call cognitive flexibility—looking at things from all different angles.”
Share like a bonobo.
These famously social apes have been observed both in the wild and in captivity sharing food with each other. That makes sense if they’re helping troop members feed, but these apes have been known to share food with strangers—almost like they just want to be nice.
How your child can act like a bonobo: Both Rhew and Kratz emphasize the importance of giving kids opportunities to share versus “forced” sharing. This could be a providing a big bag of snacks that’s made for more than one person, or suggesting a game that involves turn-taking. And if they don't want to share sometimes, that’s OK. "It teaches that their wants and needs are important, too,” Kratz says.
What they’ll gain: Rhew says sharing helps children develop emotional regulation skills, which allow a child to control their feelings over something they really, really want. That means encouraging a kid to stay calm and patient when their sibling is holding a favorite doll or when their bestie is hogging the game controller. The more kids share, the better they’ll get at keeping cool in these situations.
And here’s another way Rhew says sharing is beneficial to your child: “If a child can share and show empathy, other children will want to be around that child.”