This year’s theme for ‘Mental Health Awareness Week’ is kindness.
Kindness can be defined as empathy, compassion and being friendly. Studies have shown that generous people perform better. Helping others broadens your learning and helps to form deeper relationships. Darwin recognised that helping others was a part of natural selection as ‘tribes who were always ready to aid one another, would be victorious over most other tribes.’
Parents spend a lot of time telling their children to be kind. However, a recent study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that 80% of the 10,000 students surveyed, felt their parents care more about their children’s personal achievements or happiness than whether they are kind human beings.
Is kindness something you can really teach and how can parents instill it in their children? I have a few practical suggestions:
I have said countless times in these blog posts that 80% of parenting is modelling. This is particularly true with regards to kindness. Children learn what it means to be kind by the examples their parents show them. This can be very simple things such as greeting people politely and with enthusiasm, smiling at a waiter (when we get back out in the real world), saying thank you or complementing a friend. Equally important is the way you engage with your child, responding with love, empathy, compassion and understanding even if you don’t like their behaviour.
Talk about kindness
Actively try to share your own experiences of helping others. Be honest with your children when perhaps you regret moments when you could have done more. Under normal circumstances, a common discussion at the end of a long day may be questioning your child about their achievements, such as: “How did the spelling test go?” “Did you score a goal in football?” Instead try to gear the questions towards asking your children what they did that was kind or helpful.
We can also help to develop empathy in our children by talking about how they think their actions made another person feel, such as a sibling or friend. Get them into the habit of empathising what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes, including characters in a movie or book. During this pandemic our family have had many conversations over the dinner table about how fortunate we are and thinking about others who may find themselves in much more challenging circumstances.
The more you acknowledge or notice something, the more children deem it to be important. A very common mistake that parents make is to tell their children what they have done wrong, rather than catching them when they do something right. Notice and mention any examples of kindness displayed by your children, such as helping a sibling or offering to unload the dishwasher without being asked. Help your children notice what it feels like to be kind and help other people.
One activity we undertook quite early in lockdown, was to sort through all the children’s old toys and books. We then got in touch with a local organisation, who knew about families in need and told us the ages of the children so that we could prepare packages of toys and books specifically suitable for the age and gender of each family. My 10-year-old remarked how she got more pleasure from giving the toys away than when she had received them.
Another lovely idea, is to create a kindness jar. When your child does something thoughtful, pop a note in the jar and read over them every now and again.
Opportunities for kindness
Being kind to others, genuinely feels good and helps to create a sense of community, connection and distraction from your own troubles. Sometimes you consciously need to create opportunities for your children to engage with people from different backgrounds and cultures. This may take children slightly out of their comfort zones but helps them learn to empathise with others. Perhaps it means volunteering at a shelter or food bank, or for young adults encouraging them to spend a summer with less privileged children. Perhaps as a family you could set yourselves five kindness goals for the week. This could be as simple as smiling at strangers in the street, phoning up an elderly person stuck at home or helping younger siblings with their homework.
Even now there are so mnay initiatives and ways of offering kindness remotely. One of my daughter’s has been calling up elderly people who can’t leave their homes at all or writing cards for people in care homes.
To truly set our children up for success in life, teaching them to be kind is probably the most moral attribute. I would argue that the true test of parenting is ultimately, how your children treat others not what they achieve.
Always remember, as far as children are concerned, what you do is far more powerful than what you say.