Whether online, at the movies, or in the supermarket checkout line, almost every day we witness people interacting in cruel, intolerant, or unkind ways. And if we’re noticing this misbehavior, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our kids are, too. The Highlights State of the Kid survey asked 2,000 children, ages six to twelve from across the United States, what is the one thing they would like to change in the world and why. More than half of the responses were about kindness, with 24% of kids wanting the world to be a kinder, more respectful place; 15% wanting to end crime and violence; 8% wanting to help those in need; and another 7% wanting to end bullying and improve education.
Unlike previous State of the Kid surveys where children were concerned with pollution and recycling – problems with tangible solutions – the desire for a kinder world is a problem with much more abstract solutions. As parents, we’re often intentional with the life skills we teach our children. So, how can we be more deliberate when it comes to educating our kids about the importance of kindness – and what it means to be a kind person?
“This doesn’t apply to me,” you might think to yourself. “I talk to my kids all the time about kindness.” But simply talking about it isn’t enough. The question is: are your kids hearing you? According to research from Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common (MCC) initiative, parents say they want caring, empathetic children, but their kids are absorbing an entirely different message. Highlights applied MCC’s survey to their readers, asking: “What do you think is most important to your parents: that you’re happy, do well in school, or are kind?” The feedback was in line with MCC’s research: 44% responded, “That I’m happy,” 33% responded, “That I do well in school,” and only 23% responded, “That I’m kind.”
If parents want their kids to be caring and empathetic, how is the message getting lost in translation? MCC’s faculty director, Dr. Richard Weissbourd, partially credits the shift from an emphasis on the common good to individual achievement and the self-esteem movement. “By the age of five or six, kids know being kind, caring and empathetic is important,” says Weissbourd, “but it’s getting overshadowed. Just like anything else, these are muscles that need practice.”
Dr. Michele Borba, author of UnSelfie, echoes this sentiment and encourages parents to make a proactive effort to build kindness over time, so it’s not a one-time lecture, but instead, a habit. “Every morning, as your kids leave for school, tell them to do TWO kind acts that day, so it’s in their head. Once they go out of their way to be kind, they’ll notice the positive reinforcement.” Through this, your children’s kind acts will transform into consistently kind behavior.
It’s not only about reminding your kids to be kind, however. It’s even more important to equip them with strategies to implement kindness, especially when it’s difficult. “Overwhelmingly, kids tell me they are constantly talking about being kind, but they’re not always given the tools to respond to situations, such as bullying and conflict.” The key is to tap into real scenarios. “Prompt your kids to think through situations. Whether you are watching a movie, or visiting grandparents, ask them, ‘Do you hear the sound of her voice? Do you see his facial expression? What does that mean?’” says Borba. “In addition, role-playing can help. Ask your kids, ‘What if someone was being picked on. What would you do?’” Figure out what approach works best for your kids and encourage them to develop a tactic that they find both productive and comfortable. (Think: would my child rather speak out against the bully, or privately comfort the victim?)
As Borba explains, the best lessons are taught not through words, but by example. One of the best ways to raise a kind child is to model kindness in your everyday life. Whether you realize it or not – your kids are constantly taking cues from your behavior, and this goes beyond “please” and “thank you.” According to the State of the Kidsurvey, 68% of children have witnessed their parents acting unkindly or saying mean things, and 93% of these children have had a negative reaction to it.
Weissbourd adds, “Are you polite to servers? Do you keep your cool in the midst of disagreement?” The smallest interactions can have the largest impact on children, so before you correct your child’s behavior, remember to check your own.
No matter the situation, you can help make kids’ wishes for a kinder world a reality. It just takes some daily effort to instill these values. Remember to talk to your kids openly about being kind, role-playing through various situations and modeling kindness yourself.
While it may seem like we still have a long way to go, Weissbourd assures there’s plenty of reason to be hopeful. “We’ve made a lot of progress. Kids today are a lot more caring, empathetic and enlightened about issues pertaining to race and the LGBTQ community.” It’s important to highlight this positive change and ensure these are the examples we show our children. Then, if you want to see if your message is getting through, Borba says to simply ask your kids: what do you think is most important to me? Their answer is all the information you need.