Earlier this month, I discussed how one of my son’s middle-school teachers focused on his kindness towards others as the highlight of our parent-teacher conference, and how it inspired me to look at my own behavior and seek ways to choose kindness and reinforce the same with our children.
In this week’s post, the story continues with a reflection on kindness and tips for teaching children to choose kindness.
Our son has always been a kind soul. From the time he was young, he had what we have often referred to as a tender heart. He cheers for the underdog. He celebrates the successes of others without ill will. He stands up for those who need help, and isn’t afraid to protest injustice. He’s been the mediator between many friendship squabbles, trying to help each see the side of the other. And when my aging mother-in-law lived with us for several years before her death, he showed her the utmost patience, respect, and love – the kind that still brings warmth and gladness to my heart.
So I thought back to how this all started, and I came up with a few simple things that I hope will inspire others to look for and reinforce kindness in their children. As parents, mentors, educators, or other caring adults, proactively seek opportunities to model and reinforce:
1. Courtesy. I think about when my children were young, how many comments we would get at restaurants from servers who would say, “Wow, your children are so very polite!” A simple “thank you,” “please,” “yes” or “yes, ma’am,” instead of “yeah,” and general politeness goes a long way. We didn’t think much of it, after all, our parents had expected nothing less of us as children, why would we expect less of our children? But the truth is, times are different. Some of the basic courtesies of yesteryear have going by the wayside in the hustle and bustle of today’s world.
So I suggest that you hold the door for someone else. Help someone pick up the stack of papers he or she dropped on the ground. When you have a cart full of groceries, let the lady behind you with fewer items (or a screaming child) go ahead of you in line. Children learn these habits by watching us, and simple courtesies set children on a course for kindness.
2. Empathy. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is difficult for a lot of people. I think about when our son was very young, all of the questions he would ask when his little sister (two years younger) would cry. “Why is she crying?” “Is she hungry?” “Why is she sad?” “Did she hurt herself?” Or when we would read together, the intensity he gave to each book. How thoroughly he examined each picture, and how loudly he laughed, or deeply he seemed to feel for the characters in each story. Taking the time to encourage these questions, answer them fully, and ask follow-ups like, “Is there anything you can do to help?” wasn’t always easy when we had our hands full. But it was definitely important, and I think it made a difference.
So my suggestion to you is, if your child asks these questions, do your best to take it a step further and ask a follow-up, and let him or her be part of the solution. If your child isn’t naturally inquisitive on these types of cues (as is the case with most children), look for opportunities to point out an emotion that someone might be experiencing, and help your child identify how that person might be feeling. You can use book characters, television, magazine pictures, or real life influences (like siblings, friends, grandparents, or even pets). Again, let your child’s imagination wander, and help him or her figure out how to be part of a solution.
3. Kindness. Deliberately looking for opportunities to be kind to others can be the toughest of these. We live in a very busy society – and we are often overscheduled. I think back to when my children were younger. Among our closest friends, most either had not yet started a family, or had children who were much older. We chose to surround our children with friends who modeled kindness. It wasn’t that we actively thought about it at the time, it’s just that those were the people with whom we were best connected. I think about one of my closest friends, and how her teenage daughter and she were so generous with us and our children – volunteering to look after them, taking them to activities at their church, always seeing the positive, and overall just showing us what it meant to be a kind and generous family. As our children aged, we got them more involved in simple acts of kindness and generosity. We encouraged our children to practice social skills by introducing themselves to the kids at the park who were playing by themselves. We donated items, always involving the kids in helping to decide what we would donate. We sought opportunities to allow our children to volunteer to help with various events.
My suggestion to you is to actively seek these opportunities where you can. Help the neighbor across the street carry in his or her groceries. Pick up trash in the hallway at work or at school, and let your children see you doing it. Participate in a neighborhood clean-up. Encourage your children to do the chore of a sibling without being asked. Reduce clutter by donating items you no longer are using, and make sure your children are active parts of that process.
Several school years and many conferences later, I have had many opportunities to hear about my children. But I will never forget the school conference when a middle-school teacher went out of her way to tell me that my child was kind. It has forever had an impact on my family and how we raise our children. I hope others are also inspired to choose kindness.
And if you are a teacher, and have the opportunity to tell parents about their child’s kindness, do it! It is likely to have a deeper impact than you imagine.
Download these activities to help reinforce kindness at home and in the classroom: