When my three boys were two, four and five, we played a game called “Secret Teddy.” Teddy was a small, ragged stuffed bear that “mysteriously appeared” on one son’s pillow each night with a little note describing how he had been especially caring that day. (Trying to be sneaky was always challenging).  I only needed to put Teddy out once for the kindness-building strategy to be effective. The very next day-and the next few weeks-the boys were on full “Kindness Alert” watching for a brother to say or do something kind so that they could later guess who Teddy would visit.

All day my boys would run to me with Kindness Reports: “Zach was really nice. He shared his toys with me.” “Jason was really kind. He let me choose the game. Teddy should visit him!” I always asked them to explain why they felt the deeds were kind. I loved watching my boys run to their pillows at bedtime to see who Teddy visited and then eagerly wait for me to read his note. “Adam, you were so kind to your Grandma when you helped her make cookies. She had such a smile on her face.” Or “Jason, you were so kind to help your Daddy rake the leaves. He was so grateful!” I especially loved how excited they were for each other. I knew they were starting to move from “me” to “we”- a big step for learning empathy. After all, empathy is always a WE affair.

Here are five fun empathy-building strategies from Michele Borba's new book, UnSelfie, that young kids enjoy.

Those “Teddy visits” began as one of those spontaneous parenting moments when my kids’ “empathy level” needed readjusting. But I discovered that just by helping focus on kindness for a few days, their kind behaviors blossomed! And it was all because we were talking kindness, looking for kindness, practicing kindness and reinforcing kindness just a bit more often. Practicing Kindness is one of nine habits that nurture children’s empathy from my new book, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.

Here are four more fun empathy-building strategies from UnSelfie that young kids enjoy.

1 – Make a family kindness mailbox.

An old shoebox with a slit cut in the top will do for this simple activity. Just encourage your family to look for others doing kind deeds. Write or draw the deeds and slip them in the box. and read those notes during your family meal, a Sunday breakfast, or family gathering. It will help everyone start looking for the “good” in one another.

2 – Teach bucket filling.

Have You Filled a Bucket Today?, by Carol McCloud, is a favorite children’s book with a power-punched message: Everyone carries an invisible bucket to hold good thoughts and feelings. When your bucket is filled, you’re happy; when empty, you’re sad. Read the book to your children and teach them that we all can be “bucket fillers” just by practicing kindness. Provide each family member with a small plastic bucket or cup from the dollar store and leave slips of paper and crayons nearby. Children are more likely to be kind if they understand why kindness is important and how it affects others. So encourage your kids to fill each other’s buckets by describing their kind deed. “Thanks for filling my bucket when you asked me to play.” Or “You were a bucket filler when you helped me pick up my books.”

3 – Create kindness chains.

Why not encourage your children’s “kindness successes” by helping them track their efforts, both small and large on paper chains. Each child (and mom and dad) writes or draws their kind deed and staples it to another chain, and in no time, you’ll have a long string of kind deeds hanging around your home. A similar idea is by having your children add a colored bead (or macaroni) for each kind act they do on a string to make a necklace or bracelet so they see their kind acts grow.

4 – Start a giving box.

It’s never too early to encourage children to lend a hand. One way to help kids realize that kindness can make a difference is by keeping a box handy for everyone to place gently used toys, clothes or books to give to someone in need. Just leaving the box in a visible spot helps children think about helping others. “I bet this book might make another boy happy.” “Maybe a girl might like to play this game.” When the boy is filled, have your kids help you take the items to a children’s ward in a hospital, a shelter or to the fire station to be delivered to a needy family. And then start another box, and another. Just remember to always remind your children about the positive effect their kind gestures had on the recipients.

My boys taught me that the best moments to teach kindness are usually not planned-they just happen. Capitalize on those moments to help your children understand the power of kindness. The more kids practice the miracles of kindness when they are young, the greater the likelihood that they will make kindness a lifelong habit. That is how we will produce a generation of empathetic children—Unselflies!

Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an award-winning educational psychologist and an expert in parenting, bullying and character development. She is the author of 22 books including her latest, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. For more information: micheleborba.com or follow her on twitter @micheleborba.