The value of teaching kindness (in these uncivil times)


“A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference.”
— A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh

“I didn’t come here to make friends.”
— Virtually every reality-show contestant ever

It’s fair to say our current cultural landscape is no Hundred Acre Wood.

Divisiveness abounds on cable news, with party lines deepening. The New Jersey Housewives toss tables at each other. And now, with one click of the mouse, we might face an internet troll who makes a sport of being hurtful. What effect might all this have on our children?

To rise against the tide of incivility, many parents and teachers are explicitly teaching kindness to children. Jilly Njaa Ressler and her husband see kindness as one of many character traits they want to instill in their five daughters, ages 9-25.

“I think we realized early on if we were just aiming our kids toward ‘success,’ we would be aiming them to something that wasn’t lasting,” says the Scottsdale mom. Instead, the Resslers seek to orient their children to something bigger.

Winnie the Pooh, Hundred Acre Wood, teaching kindness
If only attitudes were more like those in the Hundred Acre Wood.

Ressler, who previously worked as a licensed clinical social worker, connects the importance of kindness to her faith. Part of that faith is helping children understand their own value and recognizing the value of others. She cites “love your neighbor as yourself” and the golden rule of “do unto others as you would want them to do unto you” as important motivations for teaching kindness.

Researchers in Arizona State University’s Project K.I.D. (Kindness in Development) also have a great interest in promoting kindness. Project K.I.D. spent the last year gathering data on more than 100 Arizona K-2 students and their positive social behaviors. One of the goals of the project is to learn more about what motivates children to be caring — whether toward similar peers or larger groups.

Dr. Tracy Spinrad, principal investigator for Project K.I.D. and a professor in the Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at ASU, is excited about the project’s positive framework. She looks at many forms of kindness, such as helping others, sharing, donating and comforting others who are distressed.

“We also focus on kind emotions, such as sympathy — feeling concern for another, and empathy — feeling similar to what another person is feeling,” says Spinrad. “If we help to improve kindness and foster empathy in children, we are likely to reduce some of the problem behaviors that concern parents and teachers.”

She says research indicates children who show sympathy and helping behaviors are more liked by their peers, more socially competent and less likely to develop problem behaviors. So, in this polarized world, both the faith and science communities squarely line up behind the value of teaching kindness. But what’s the best way to do it? Here are some concrete steps toward raising a kind child.

Modeling kindness

When my son Sean was 6 years old, he caught his first fish. Instead of dancing with elation, he gently tried to reassure the fish wriggling on the line by petting it and saying, “It’s going to be OK, Buddy.” (We let “Buddy” go!)

At this point, he was likely influenced by what the adults in his life did when, say, he fell off his bike or lost his Power Ranger figure. Children learn more by watching than listening, which is why modeling is a powerful force. Ressler sees the special value in modeling during everyday moments.

“Sure, it’s great to volunteer at soup kitchens,” says Ressler, “but our children are watching us all the time, every single day. How do we treat the waiter who serves us? How do we treat the new person who moves into the neighborhood?”

Ressler feels if, for example, we are kind to our dog but nasty to the elderly person blocking our way in the grocery store, kids will notice.

“They particularly are observant about how we treat people where it serves no personal benefit to ourselves,” she says.

Practicing kindness

Spinrad believes interactions between parents and children can set the stage for kindness. She cites four tips for promoting kindness through interactions:

  • Be warm and supportive.
  • Respond to children’s emotions in appropriate ways that are not harsh or punitive.
  • Talk about others’ feelings in ways that draws attention to others’ perspectives.
  • Encourage children to participate in helpful activities.

Ressler witnessed firsthand the power of the kindness of strangers. “When our youngest daughter, Anabel, was very sick with leukemia some years ago, we pointed out repeatedly how touched we were by all the kindness we received, and our children really noticed,” Ressler says.

She notes that her children were especially moved when people they didn’t even know were so kind.

“We talked a great deal about the need to listen in your heart to ways that you can extend yourself to people around you, and then act on it,” Ressler shares. “Don’t just think about it; DO it.”

Reinforcing kindness

Of course, we want to strengthen our child’s kindness muscle. But, Spinrad shares some caution.

“One thing we know is that giving children small prizes for being kind can actually be detrimental to children’s helpful behaviors in future situations when there is no reward,” she says.

The thinking is that such rewards take away the inner motivation for being kind.

Some children will think of ways to be kind on their own, and others might need a little support to get started. Suggest small steps to your child, such as sitting with someone in the cafeteria who is eating alone or helping someone with a classroom chore.

Another idea is to start a “kindness box.” At the start of the month, put a box in your house where your child can jot down moments of kindness, either demonstrated by the child or observed. At the end of the month, read the box’s entries and discuss the effects of such acts. The power lies in the shared conversations on the value of being kind.

Ressler sums up the importance of raising a kind child: “The thing with kindness is that it moves our children from being innately self-centered toward being other-centered, which in the long run brings more lasting joy than short-term success.”

Spinrad adds about the process of learning to be kind: “I’ll bet that children are not just learning from their parents, but parents might just learn something about kindness from their kids, too!”

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