Before my son started preschool this year, my partner and I met with his teacher for an entrance interview. When we were asked what my son's greatest strength was, I didn't have to think about it: kindness is definitely his superpower. He's always gone out of his way to make other people feel special. It makes me so proud, and is definitely something I want him to continue to value as he grows. But how can I make that happen? Are there things you can do to make your kid kind later in life? Turns out, there are, and there are more than a few experts that can help guide you, too.
According to researchers at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, almost all parents want their kids to be kind, with 96 percent of parents in their study citing moral character as a top priority for their kids. Their kids, however, are hearing something else entirely. Eighty-one percent of 10,000 kids in the survey thought their parents' number one concern was their happiness. Not surprisingly, those kids also wanted to be happy (80 percent) over being kind (20 percent).
Sadly, most of the kids surveyed agreed with the following statement: "My parents are prouder if I get good grades, than if I’m a caring community member." And 57 percent of high school students thought that successful adults are willing to cheat to win. Given the current political climate, and the troubling revelations regarding the inappropriate and predatory conduct of men in high positions of power, the aforementioned is hardly surprising.
In our attempts to raise successful, happy children, parents have let kindness take a back seat, and it may be starting to show. According to Stopbullying.gov, 28 percent of 6th to 12th graders report being bullied, and 30 percent of kids admit to bullying other kids. Additionally, according to the American Educational Research Association (AERA) one-in-four middle school students report being sexually harassed at school.
So, what can we do?
When we encourage our kids to donate their old toys to charity, participate in food drives at school, or befriend a kid who is shy or new to the neighborhood, we are promoting their future kindness.
The good news is that kids are pretty much programmed to be kind. According to researchers at University of British Columbia and University of California, Riverside, kids as young as 18 months begin doing nice things for others, both prompted and unprompted. What's more, if you continue to encourage your children to do things for others, they will also be happier. You see, happiness and altruism are bidirectional, which means that happy people do more kind things and doing things for others makes people happy, which sounds like a win-win situation to me.
When we encourage our kids to donate their old toys to charity, participate in food drives at school, or befriend a kid who is shy or new to the neighborhood, we are promoting their future kindness. According to Patty O’Grady, PhD, a professor at the University of Tampa, this is because doing kind things can actually change the way kids' brains work. As O'Grady writes for Psychology Today:
The neuroscience and social science research is clear: kindness changes the brain by the experience of kindness. Children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking about it and talking about it. Kindness best learned by feeling it so that they can reproduce it. Kindness is an emotion that students feel and empathy is a strength that they share.
Researchers posit that these warm feelings can teach children the value of collaboration and to trust each other. I've definitely seen this in my own family, especiallly when we encourage our kids to be kind to one another and collaborate on projects and games.
I also try (but don't always succeed) to encourage my kids to read books and watch media that demonstrates kindness. It's pretty hard to teach your kids to be good without an immediate reward, if the only heroes they are exposed to do things for personal gain, versus to help others. Research seems to back this up, too. In a study published in the Journal of Children and Media young children ages 2-6 who watched the show Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, had better social skills, empathy, and emotional intelligence compared to those who didn't. I knew I loved that show for a reason.
Kids don't buy "do what I say, not what I do."
According to researchers at Penn State Harrisburg, school-based anti-bullying programs involving discussions of violence and kindness, featuring literature on these topics can be the key to reducing bullying. Some books they recommend include The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher, The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst, and No Shame, No Fear by Anne Turnbull. For younger audiences, I recommend my daughter's favorite book, Have You Filled A Bucket Today?, which is pretty much Kindness 101.
Harvard Psychologist Richard Weissbourd told the Washington Post that one way we can teach our kids to prioritize kindness, is to help them understand the impact of their decisions on other people. As reported by The Washington Post, Weisbbourd stated the following:
A big part of that is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honoring their commitments, even if it makes them unhappy. For example, before kids quit a sports team, band, or a friendship, we should ask them to consider their obligations to the group or the friend and encourage them to work out problems before quitting.
This is similar to providing natural or logical consequences, instead of punishments, when your kids make mistakes. It adds the component of community, and helps us teach our kids to evaluate decisions before they make them, based on possible consequences not only for themselves but for other people, too.
Weissbourd adds that one of best ways to teach your kids to be kind is to be kind yourself. Kids don't buy "do what I say, not what I do." If you want your kids to know that you truly value kindness, show them — be kind to others, hold open doors, use good manners, use inclusive language, give money to charitable causes, and volunteer in your community. It seems that like many things in parenting, the answer is a lot more simple than we make it out to be. The secret to raising kind adults is being one yourself in big ways and little ways every single day.
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