Teach a kid to be kind and you’ll change the world
Helloooo there, all the way from our homes to yours. How’s it going?
Can we just say--we’re proud of you!
You’ve been home for weeks now with your children. Overnight, you’ve had to become a homeschool teaching assistant. You may have had to figure out how to work remotely, and find the balance when you’re perpetually interrupted. You have had to rework budgets, shift how you shop, keep your family safe in shelter, and plan for the unplannable. You’ve flowed, made adjustments, and you’re finding the new normal in your family.
We hope you feel encouraged. You’re leading yourself and your family through unprecedented times. You are modeling one of the most incredible gifts you can give your children. You show them how to be resilient, to bounce back from the tough stuff life hurls at us. Sure, you’d like to protect them from it all. And when you can’t, you give them this strength.
You are amazing.
Now how does it feel that someone appreciates what you’ve been up against, and what you’re accomplishing? Do you feel a little more whole, and a little less scattered? Does it give you a firmer step in the moment? Do you feel a little more visible? When you were validated, were you able to start seeing yourself and your journey with new eyes? If so, you’ve just experienced a small response to kindness.
If you answered the questions by defaulting to what you got wrong, what you didn’t accomplish, stop right there. You just missed a chance to be kind to yourself. You were offered a gift of affirmation, but a part of you may feel you don’t deserve it because you’ve made some mistakes. (Notice what happened there...and keep moving.)
If kindness is an important part of family conversations and culture, you may be surprised by the benefits. It’s one of the best predictors of personal happiness, health, longevity, marital satisfaction and stability. It’s kryptonite to sibling rivalry, bullying, and cruelty.
Kindness deserves more credit than we’ve thought. But what is it, exactly?
Around the world in 80 seconds
The Old English word, kyndeness, has fascinating resonance. It’s connected to words for “nation” and “increase.” French also links people (gens) and kindness (gentillesse).
Amabilidad, a Spanish term, suggests both the virtue and the emotion it evokes in another.
The German, freundlich, whispers that kindness develops relationships.
In Zulu, ubuntu conveys, “I am because you/we are,” a stunning expression of humility, compassion, and humanity.
The old Greek term, chréstos, sees the quality as something useful, serviceable, good.
The Hebrew, chesed, synergizes kindness with mercy and faithful love, characterizing God in this way. Its ancient proverbs suggest that grace, generosity, kindness form the pathway to honor and respect.
Chinese terms for kindness lean toward benevolence (which is connected to largeness), mercy, forgiveness.
There is a universal sense in which kindness interrupts selfishness, requiring some form of humility. A kind person pauses to consider, empathize, and respond to felt needs. That generosity strengthens flexible, forgiving, safe relationships. A community formed by kindness produces courteous, resilient citizens. And these formidable contributions are best forged at home.
Cultivating a kind heart
Unfortunately, some of our homes were unsafe. We strive for kindness with our partners, with our children, determined not to repeat the pain we experience in the places we expected to find love. But it can be really hard to silence the harsh, internalized voices we’ve used to push us toward perfectionism. We’re often unaware that we drive, sabotage, even punish ourselves, because it’s safer than being continually shamed in the name of love. We may fear that being vulnerable and kind to ourselves will leave us open to more pain.
Understand this: for all our best intentions, we cannot fool our children. They need us to embody kindness, not suggest it to them.
Become intentional about “watching” your emotions the next time you’re stressed, anxious, or angry. Try observing them as they arise. This is super important, because you start to understand that “you” are far more exquisite than your own thoughts and feelings . Just Stop. Back up, walk several paces away, take a few deep breaths, count to 10 (or 20). You may need to excuse yourself briefly. Do this. Victor Frankyl, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor, wrote:
What would it take to be kind to yourself at this moment? What would it look like to have compassion for your own humanity? It’s paradoxical that you just can’t give your partner or your kids consistent, balanced kindness until you offer it to yourself. You may need to start processing your feelings in a journal, or with a trusted friend or therapist who can help you cultivate thoughts of goodness, usefulness, mercy, and generosity toward yourself. You’ll find seeds of kindness flourishing as you strengthen these places in your heart.
It Takes Time
Kindness is deeply connected to time, because...
Kindness blossoms over time.
By six months, most babies have already developed the ability to empathize. Empathy is the ability to imagine what someone else is thinking or experiencing, and it’s an essential means by which your baby attaches, grows, and develops in year one. We understand parental empathy for a vulnerable infant. Isn’t it interesting that even babies are wired to feel and respond to others?
Toddlers are able to use kind words, give, share, and show compassion with siblings and playmates. Teaching them how to recognize and greet others--saying hello and goodbye--develops courtesy and self confidence. In earnest play and with unbridled affection for one another, our children help us debunk prejudice and love with more exuberance. They kindle the joy of kindness.
In a recent study of school age children, researchers found that between kindergarten and grade 3, kids experience kindness as helping physically or emotionally, sharing, and providing “support that helps to build or maintain relationships.” Three quarters of the children actually “defined kindness as a teacher, teaching” (John-Tyler Binfert et al, 2019).
That suggests that we as parents embody kindness for younger children who observe us helping them and others. A study of Germans who helped Jews in WWII linked their courage and altruism to early life exemplars who demonstrated empathy and advocacy for others (Adrian Bethune).
Between grades 4 and 8, children reframe kindness as helping, showing respect, encouraging, or advocating for others. At the same time, research shows that schools are no longer perceived as places of kindness, and boys report increased harshness there. This reinforces the need for our homes to remain consistent places of vulnerability, honesty, forgiveness, growth, and hospitality.
Kindness Adds Up
Circling back to our Old English definition of kindness as “increase,” we can enlarge a child’s capacity for kindness with the following principles.
1. Make kindness your baseline. You know those farmhouse signs that read, In this house, we…? In your home, set your intention to cultivate kindness. Educator, Sheila Sjolseth, suggests that planning a 10 minute kindness activity each day will foster a compassionate, problem-solving culture in your family. Her innovative website, penniesoftime.com, helps families roadmap and track kindness “mileage”.
2. Adapt a responsive communication style with your family. That doesn’t mean you’re “on” 24/7. It does mean that you are available, engaged, off your phone, laptop, social media when they need to connect. Experts at The Gottman Institute suggest that healthy partners and parents regularly “scan” the environment, attuned for opportunities to connect with one another. Why? You’re modeling empathy and a listening ear.
3. Use questions to help your kids develop curiosity and empathy for other people and perspectives.
4. Calmly reason with kids until they understand and accept that their unkind actions have caused harm. Parents who master the method tend to turn out well-adjusted, helpful children (Eisenberg).
5. Encourage specific acts of kindness. It’s not enough to imagine helping someone. When we act in kindness, the brain releases biochemicals like dopamine and oxytocin. They make us happier and healthier, even give us a “ Helper’s High” (Hamilton).
6. Track the frequency of kindness on a daily basis. You’ll foster constructive competition. Some families use cotton balls or pennies in jars; some use poster systems. This helps children more aware of the quality and frequency of positive thoughts.
7. Reward children for their accomplishments. Offer simple privileges, not toys or food.
8. Conspire as a family to help someone, and keep it a secret. The kids will learn the power of what researchers call “quiet kindness.” This sophisticated skill involves thinking and planning to help another without any need for recognition (Binfert).
9. Pick a person or cause needing more help than you can provide as a family. Ask your friends to join you. You’ll show the kids how to ask for help for someone else.
10. Be an advocate. On a recent episode, Steve Harvey profiled a father who learned that a girl in his daughter’s class was being bullied. The dad took his daughter to apologize, and helped her understand what the other girl was feeling. The father began including the young lady in their family gatherings. Over time, the two girls became friends, the daughter learning empathy, the bullied young lady gaining acceptance. When Steve Harvey picked up the story and bought them both fancy prom dresses, he reinforced the sheer power of kindness.
Kindness is unforgettable.
The most incredible impact of kindness is that one phrase can spark hope. One conversation can carry you into your future. Kindness settles into the heart and glues the broken pieces back together. Remembered kindness can reduce us to tears, decades later. It’s best seen in times like these, when we’re feeling fragile and disconcerted. We need love and soothing. We lose self-sufficiency. We need one another.