We want many things for our kids: for them to be happy and successful, to do well in school and to ultimately be better prepared for the real world. We also want them to become many things, none more important or impactful than if they turn out to be honest-to-goodness kind.
Kindness has such a multiplicative effect--it's the antidote to so much of what's wrong in the world today. And being kind is like having your cake and eating it too, because studies like this 2007 research from the Center for Creative Leadership show kindness and empathy are critical for leadership success.
But we may deprioritize or even forget to reinforce this character trait with our children.
Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd has been working to spread kindness through the Making Caring Common project, whose stated mission is to help raise kids who "care about others and the common good." The psychologist found that 80 percent of kids said their parents were more concerned about their achievement or happiness than they were about whether they cared for others.
Additionally, the child interviewees were three times more likely to agree that "My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I'm a caring community member in class and school."
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, there's always opportunity to better foster the vital trait of kindness, and Making Caring Common researchers can help.
The initiative first got press via The Washington Post in 2014 and has been going strong ever since. In March 2019, the project published a study on how to ensure students and parents act ethically in the college admissions process (in the wake of the recent college admissions scandal).
So what can you as parents and leaders of children do? I blended Weissbourd's advice with my own research and experience to offer five kindness kick starters.
1. Don't just role-model kindness. Live it as a core value.
Values are those little things we do each day that exemplify who we are. The daily little impressions that leave a huge permanent impression. If I were to ask you to write down your core values on a piece of paper, could you? In conducting research for my first book, Make It Matter, I discovered that 75 percent of people could, within two minutes.
The bigger question is, might you include kindness in that values set and would you live it each day as a non-negotiable value? That goes beyond mere role-modeling--to molding.
2. Verbalize kindness as a priority.
Weissbourd says instead of saying to your kids, "The most important thing is that you're happy," say "The most important thing is that you're kind." It's about getting the child to balance their needs (achievement) with the needs of others. It also requires holding the child to high ethical standards.
My wife and I ask our daughter to consider her obligations to others before she quits any sport or activity she has signed up for, something Weissbourd recommends. The psychologist also recommends making sure your children always address others respectfully, even when they're tired, distracted, or angry.
3. Expand your child's circle of concern.
Every child starts out with a small universe of people they care about. It's our job to help them extend that circle out to include that new foreign-language student, the elderly neighbor, or those less fortunate.
Weissbourd says children need to "zoom in and zoom out," meaning, be attentive to their immediate inner circle while also taking in the bigger picture and considering what others say and need--especially for those who are vulnerable or who aren't like them (in ethnicity, background, culture, etc.). It's also critical here that children learn to consider how their decisions affect others (like the example of quitting a sports team).
4. Help children manage destructive emotions and avoid mean-spirited behavior
This is a good practice for you, too. Anger, jealousy, and similar negative emotions can derail anyone from acting as desired, especially already-emotional children.
Weissbourd says kids need to know that all feelings are natural, but not all ways of handling those feelings are OK. He prescribes simple advice, with a twist. The old-fashioned method of defusing anger works--stop, pause, breathe through your nose, exhale through your mouth, count to five. The catch is to practice it with them first--when they're not in the middle of an outburst. My wife and I have found this approach heads off at least some of the most unbecoming behavior.
5. Practice, practice, practice.
Daily repetition is key, as it is with the formation of any habit. It's especially powerful when your child practices expressing gratitude. Weissbourd says studies show that those who habitually express gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving as well as happier and healthier.