Search for "successful kids" and you'll get dozens of articles packed with tips, research, and advice from my colleagues and I. Try "kind kids" and you'll get next to nothing. 

Apparently, this website and it's readers are not alone. According to a fascinating new Atlantic article by Wharton professor Adam Grant and his wife, author Alison Sweet Grant, while we often say we value kindness and decency over worldly success in our kids, what we do (and what we choose to click on) suggest different priorities. And that's a big problem. 

Your kids probably don't know how much you value kindness. 

"If you survey American parents about what they want for their kids, more than 90 percent say one of their top priorities is that their children be caring," the Grants write. "But when you ask children what their parents want for them, 81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring." 

Why the discrepancy? "Kids, with their sensitive antennae...  see their peers being celebrated primarily for the grades they get and the goals they score, not for the generosity they show. They see adults marking their achievements without paying as much attention to their character," the Grants note. 

In other words, for many of us adults our stated values don't line up with our actions, and kids notice. That's having effects on them. The complete article, which is well worth a read in full, runs through a host of depressing studies showing children these days are less empathetic and helpful than those in previous generations.    

How to raise kinder kids 

How do we turn around those worrying indicators to help our kids grow up to be thoughtful, caring adults? The Grants explain that much of the change in children's empathy reflects both parents' worries about their kids' future in a cutthroat world and an admirable cultural shift towards teaching girls to stick up for themselves

But it's not just possible to teach your kid to both fight her own corner and to be kind. It's actually the smart way to go. In fact, a balance of empathy and self-respect is a better formula for flourishing (and even material success) than simply focusing on achievement and toughness, they insist.

The first step toward cultivating a better balance is simply being more thoughtful about what you praise and how you praise it. The Grants offer a few concrete suggestions: 

  • What did you do to help others today? "When our own kids started school, we noticed that many of our questions at the end of the day were about accomplishments. Did your team win? How did the test go? To demonstrate that caring is a core value, we realized that we needed to give it comparable attention. We started by changing our questions. At our family dinners, we now ask our children what they did to help others," they say. 

  • Share your own experience with kindness. Don't just praise kindness in others, talk about your own efforts (and failures) on this front. "Telling your kids about how you regret not standing up for a child who was bullied might motivate them to step up one day," they write. 

  • Don't badger. While highlighting kindness is effective, browbeating your kids into niceness won't work. "Too many kids come to see kindness as a chore rather than a choice," they say. "Experiments show that when kids are given the choice to share instead of being forced to, they're roughly twice as likely to be generous later. And when kids are praised and recognized for helping, they are more likely to help again." 

More tips from parents in the trenches. 

The Grants many be some of the best informed professionals on the issue of raising kinder kids, but they're not the only experts worried about the subject. Less credentialed parents confront the issue daily too. On blog Cup Full of Jo recently mom and blogger Joanna Goddard recently shared her from-the-trenches tips on cultivating kindness with her own kids. They're a good supplement to the Grant's research-driven article. They include: 

  • Read great books. "There are so many amazing children's books that teach kindness and acceptance, as well as books featuring characters of color and female characters. I also love this book about consent. And they're not overly academic -- instead, they're entertaining and funny and inspiring. Having a diverse group of books at home, or getting some from the library, is an easy way to start conversations," writes Goddard. 

  • Accept them wholeheartedly. "Whatever wacky things our kids come up with, we embrace with open arms. When Toby had an imaginary wife and two kids, we welcomed them into the family. When Anton wanted to wear cowboy boots every day for a year, we let him go right ahead," she continues. After all, kindness starts with being kind to yourself. Parents are ideally placed to model self-acceptance. 

Researchers out of Harvard and UC Berkeley have also offered research-backed tips. If you're not sure you need to take the time to read and implement them, just ask your kids what qualities you most value in them. You might be surprised by what you hear. 

Published on: Nov 6, 2019
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