Most parents can agree on this: we all want our kids to end up as kind individuals. But how can we raise kind kids in an often unkind culture—a technology and media-driven world that bombards them with examples and messages that are often contrary to the values and character we hope they’ll develop? Every child is capable of kindness, says developmental psychologist Dr. Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., but teaching kindness in today’s environment means being more intentional—taking deliberate steps to foster good character. Practical strategies for doing that is the focus of his latest book, How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain. Last Thanksgiving, we asked Lickona for tips on teaching kids gratitude; below he shares five ways to foster kindness in family life and beyond.
1. Sensitize Your Children to the Kindness All Around Them
Because acts of cruelty and violence often dominate the news, it can seem as if kindness is not normal human behavior. But we want our children to recognize, appreciate, and be inspired by the many acts of kindness all around us. As a family, brainstorm a list of kind things people do for others. Some examples: A person holds a door for someone coming behind. Someone gives up a seat on a bus or subway. People stop to help a driver who’s having trouble. A passerby gives money or food to a homeless person. A kid at school reaches out to a student who seems to have no friends. Neighbors or church members make meals for a family that’s just had a baby, is facing a serious illness, or has lost a loved one. People raise funds for a family that’s facing unmanageable medical bills or has lost their home to a fire. Volunteers staff soup kitchens and help in hospitals.People give blood. People care for abused animals. Thousands of citizens give money, goods, or hands-on help to victims of natural disasters. This doesn’t include the countless acts of kindness done daily for members of our own family or on the job as part of our work. Parents getting up in the night to care for a sick child. Adults caring for elderly parents who can no longer take care of themselves. Teachers going the extra mile to meet the needs of every student. These are not “random” acts of kindness. They are deliberate acts that come from a strong tendency to respond compassionately and generously to the needs of others. Kindness becomes a virtue, part of our personal character, as it becomes more and more habitual. Once you have your family list of acts of kindness, construct a family definition of kindness. For example: “Kindness is caring about others,” “Kindness is doing things for others because you want to help them.” Post that on the fridge and then brainstorm a second list to go right under it: “Ways we can each practice kindness.”
2. Create a Culture of Kindness in Your Family.
Kindness has a better chance of becoming a habit if we create an intentional family culture—patterns and norms of family life—as a support system for bringing out the best in ourselves and our children. One way to do that is for parents and kids to write and post a Family Mission Statement, a set of “we” statements that express the values and virtues you commit to live by. For example, “We show kindness through kind words and kind actions”; “We say we’re sorry when we’ve hurt someone’s feelings”; “We forgive and make up when we’ve had a fight”; “We show respect by looking at and really listening to someone when they’re talking to us”; “We say please and thank you.” Have a weekly family meeting that holds everyone accountable to the Family Mission Statement, so it doesn’t become just “words on a wall.” In a family meeting, you can discuss questions such as, “How did we use kind words this week? What would help us not say unkind things even if we’re upset with somebody?” To keep kindness salient, now and again start your dinner discussion with a round of sharing acts of kindness: “What was a kind thing you did for someone today?” “What was a kind thing someone did for you?” When kids slip into speaking unkindly—as nearly all sometimes will, especially with siblings—gently ask for a “re-do”: “What would be a kinder way to say that to your sister?” Make it clear that you’re asking for a re-do not to embarrass them, but to give them a chance to show that they know better.
3. Teach about “Inside Hurts.”
Empathy is an essential building block for kindness. When kids are unkind, it’s often because they don’t fully understand the impact of their behavior. For example, if you get a call from school that your child has been calling another child a name, teach your child about “inside hurts.” In essence, there are two kinds of hurts: outside hurts that you can see, like a cut or a bruise, and inside hurts that you can’t see—like a hurt feeling. But even though you can’t see the inside hurts, they hurt more and last longer than the outside hurts. Tell your child that although he or she might not realize it, when they’re calling someone names, they are causing an inside hurt and school has to be a place where everyone feels happy and safe. Ask your child to tell you what you just said, reassuring him or her if they forget some parts. Then discuss what you can do to make the classmate feel better. Also, feel free to tell stories from your own life and childhood of when you chose kindness, and when you didn’t. Explain how both scenarios made you and the other person feel.
4. Give Your Children Real Responsibilities in Family Life.
Responsibility—in the literal sense of “response-ability”—has everything to do with kindness. Kindness means thinking of others; if you’re thinking of others, you’ll make an effort to be helpful. Polls now find that most Americans feel they have spoiled their children. If adults are doing all the giving in family life and kids all the taking, that’s a recipe for producing self-centered, entitled children. The best antidote for that is for children to have regular, meaningful responsibilities in their family from the earliest years. Research finds when children have chores—jobs they’re not paid to do, but ones they’re expected to do as contributing family members—they develop a greater concern for others.
5. Extend Kindness Beyond Your Family.
Our children also need the formative moral experience of extending kindness beyond the family. If you can, do community service with your child and support causes you believe in. Think about your neighbors and friends, what they’re currently going through, and what kind gestures they might appreciate. Ask your child’s elementary or secondary school what service learning opportunities the school is providing. And, overall, let your child know you’re just as proud of the caring ways they help others as you are of their good grades or sports achievements—indeed, often even prouder.
For more on this topic, check out our Mother pieces on Teaching Kids Authenticity, How To Raise Thankful Kids, 4 Happiness Habits To Teach Your Kids, Creating A Hygge Home, and How To Teach Kids Empathy.
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