by Judy Dutton
I've taught my daughter many things -- letters, numbers, nursery rhymes. But one thing I haven't taught her, at least in a formal way, is how to be kind. I figured that just happens on its own ... only Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist who runs the Making Caring Common project, argues that compassion and generosity are skills that need to be cultivated like any other. "Very often we focus on our kids' achievement and happiness rather than on whether they're caring kids," he says. Well, it's high time we got our priorities straight! Here are five ways parents can teach kids to be kind and make the world a better place.
- Emphasize to your kids that kindness matters. Instead of saying to your kids, "The most important thing is that you're happy," say, "The most important thing is that you're kind." Weissbourd suggests thinking about it this way: "Happiness is about you. But kindness is about everybody around you. And the irony is if you're kind, you build stronger relationships, and those are the best source of happiness we have." So by raising caring kids, you ensure their happiness more effectively than pursuing happiness head on.
- Expand your kid's "circle of concern." "All kids care about somebody, but the issue is to get them to care for people outside their circle," explains Weissbourd. "Do they care for people who are different than them? A kid who's new at school, or unpopular, or struggling with a disability? Be alert to opportunities to expand kids' circle of concern." Encourage your child to defend someone who's being picked on, or to reach out to that kid on the playground who looks lonely by saying, "Want to play?"
- Don't "make" your child apologize. "The first reaction of a parent who just saw their child hit someone is to make them apologize. After all, we want out child to learn manners," says Mark Loewen, a licensed community counselor at LaunchPadCounseling.com. "But it may not help them understand why it was wrong to hit." Instead, get down on your child's eye level and ask them, "How do you think it felt to that child to be hit?" From there, ask your child to come up with ideas on how to help the child feel better again. That way, "your child will have a successful experience of kindness instead of learning a social rule," says Loewen.
- Reflect on others' points of view. "When your child
talks about their disagreement with someone, you can ask questions
about what may make the other person think that way," says Loewen. "You
can also bring up in conversation how others feel, why they feel that
way, and what they may be thinking when they feel that way. This
increases your child's flexibility to see the world from someone else's
point of view."
- Cultivate gratitude. "Appreciating what you have is part of appreciating what others don't have," says Weissbourd. "It makes kids more alert to ways that others are deprived." So every night at dinner or before bed, have your child name one thing they're thankful for, from their new Transformer to the fact that their friend Jenny is back from vacation.
How do you teach your kids to be kind?
Why is the most important one left off of here? The one that most parents like to conveniently "forget?"
BE KIND TO THEM.
Kindness begets kindness.
The way you treat your children is how they will treat others. Not peers, and usually not when adults are watching, but I can tell with near 100% accuracy what a child's home life is like when I see how they treat a child who is newer, smaller, weaker, or in some way more vulnerable than they are, and when they think no one is watching. They may be sweet as apple pie to their peers and to adults, but the real test is how they treat someone with no power over them and nothing to give them.
Children whose parents are kind and respectful to them will be kind and respectful in this situation. Sadly, these children are few and far between.
To be kind and to respect children would fly in the face of generations of conventional parenting wisdom that uses power and emotional/physical threat and manipulation to "cultivate" desirable qualities outwardly and use behaviorism (the work of B.F. Skinner and his vestige minions, whose opinions no longer matter to anyone outside the parenting and educational world; even dog trainers have stopped using his methods, but the parenting sphere does not like change) to mold outward behavior while neglecting the inner world almost entirely.
Your child will treat someone else the way you treat them. Think about it next time you yell, threaten, hit, manipulate or dismiss them.