We all want our children to be kind, and to grow up to be even kinder. As any parent knows, monitoring unkind behavior is in most cases a practical impossibility, particularly as children grow—and it’s not an effective way to to build a kindness reflex in anyone.
Kindness isn’t something we’re born with—it’s something we’re taught.
Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell,
What do you leave to your kids when you’re dead?
Only whatever you put in their head.
Take a breath before you instruct your kids.
Empathize with your child, as empathy diffuses big emotions. As parents, we often jump right into correcting our kids: ”Give that toy back,” versus “I can see you both want that toy.” Connect before you correct. Shame and punishment do not equal discipline; in fact, the secret sauce of parenting is to discipline ourselves before we discipline our children. Oftentimes, it’s not the child that needs the time-out, it’s the parents.
Own your mistakes.
We are human, and there is a high degree of human error in parenting. At times, parenting can be very messy. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, so when we yell at our kids or say the wrong thing, we should apologize: “Can I have a Mommy do-over?” Tell them what you would do differently if you could push rewind. It models that you are willing to take responsibility for your mistakes, which is both kind and respectful, and it also inspires trust. Think of a partner who can admit when they are wrong and apologize, instead of being defensive; it is quite an attractive quality.
Talk up the importance of kindness and character.
When you are going over your daughter’s report card with her, first look at the sections on character and cooperation. Keep reinforcing that message by giving your child a verbal high five when they share with a sibling, help a friend, or express gratitude. When your kid says, “Thank you for driving me to soccer,” then reply, “Thank you for saying that—it means so much to me.” And if you’re thinking to yourself that your child would never do that, then it’s time to playfully and lovingly remind them that they are forgetting something as they’re about to slam the car door. The goal is to keep building a stronger kindness/gratitude muscle.
Stop caring so much about winning.
Instead of screaming aggressively from the sidelines of seven-year-old soccer games, emphasize the importance of teamwork and sportsmanship. A mother told me about her nine-year-old son throwing his racket during tennis tournaments. She calmly warned him that if he did this a third time, he would have to forfeit the match. When he threw the racket again, she followed through on her promise—and the lesson sank in. He went on to win both his high school and college tennis team sportsmanship awards. If you value character and kindness, then live those values out loud for your kids.
Minimize the consumption of digital negativity.
Parents always ask me why anxiety has skyrocketed in children. I think in part it is because of parental hovering and early academic/athletic pressure, coupled with negative media. More than ever, we are bombarded with images that decrease empathy and increase fear in our children. In this sea of negativity, we have trailers with bondage for Fifty Shades Darker that are seen by our children before they have had their first kiss. News of school shootings and terrorist attacks are ubiquitous. How are we to raise compassionate and hopeful kids? We have to play active defense and make sure we’re exposing our children to content that has a positive moral arc.
The good news is that having kids watch compassion and kindness in action has beneficial brain effects. Another Harvard study tracked the serotonin levels (the chemical found in Prozac and other antidepressants) of students watching a video of Mother Teresa caring for poor people in Calcutta, and found increased levels of serotonin in their saliva. So what do we learn from this study? That what you watch matters. In short, kindness is good for your health. In addition to increasing serotonin, it also increases oxytocin—a hormone that fosters bonding and connection, and lowers blood pressure. Kindness bathes us in dopamine, which enhances mood and motivation.
Teach your kids compassion, and to look outward, not inward.
Father Gregory Boyle says “Compassion is always about a shift from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, of true kinship, where all margins get erased.” Unfortunately, selfie culture is not helping our children grow their highest or happiest selves. Studies show that the more we connect to others, the happier we are. So we need to make sure we are spending more time looking out, rather than looking at our own selfies. Look out and feel kinship and compassion for other people. In this divided time in our history, it is more important than ever to actively model kindness. Model kindness by giving up our seat on the train to a person who needs it. Mentor a child. Wait patiently at Starbucks without eye-rolling the barista, or refrain from aggressively honking at a slow driver. Do we bring food to a neighbor who is sick, or volunteer with our kids at a soup kitchen? Do we ask ourselves what we can do for others? As Arthur Ashe reminds us, ”From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”