From the time our children are very small, we try to teach them to be nice, to be kind. These lessons are straightforward enough when kids are little. We insist they share their toys. We teach them not to hit or call names. We make them play nice.
But what about our big kids? Will the lessons we taught them when they were small carry them through adolescents and into adulthood? We want our older children to be kind, but often we get so caught up in teaching the “big lessons”—the ones about drinking, drugs, sex, and safety—that it’s easy to overlook lessons in kindness.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for raising teenagers who grow up to be kind adults, but there are ways we as parents can be intentional about teaching our kids this all-important virtue.
Start with a definition.
In today’s polarized world, kindness has become somewhat of a buzzword. T-shirts, coffee mugs, and internet memes all remind us to be kind. But what is kindness? What does it look like? Is it simply the absence of meanness?
The Oxford Dictionary defines kindness as, The quality of being friendly, generous, or considerate. In other words, kindness is a decision, sometimes a difficult or uncomfortable decision, to show another person friendship, to give to others, or to consider how another person might be feeling.
For all of the internet’s wisdom, kindness is rarely random. In all the busyness of life, we often have to be intentional about kindness. Encouraging our kids to actively seek out the friendless, the needy, and the hurting, is more likely to inspire our teens to be kind than any meme ever will.
We have to widen our own circles.
Teenagers are known for being cliquish, but they aren’t the only ones. It’s natural for people of any age to gravitate toward those with whom they have a lot in common or to seek out friends they particularly enjoy. There’s certainly nothing wrong with having a close-knit group of friends. However, how often do we seek out the mom sitting by herself at the ball field? Do we invite the new mom in town to join our book club or the mom who isn’t in our social circle to join us for moms’ night out?
If our kids never see us reach out in friendship to the shy mom sitting by herself in the bleachers, how can we expect them to seek out the lonely kid in the cafeteria at school?
A post or a boast?
Recently as I was scrolling through Facebook, I came across a series of darling photos of a group of kids hanging out together at a local amusement park. I didn’t really know these kids. They were all older or younger than my own children, but I could see that they were having a blast! It was clearly just the kind of night every mom would want her children to enjoy—a host of friends having wholesome fun and making memories.
It is such a joy seeing our kids happy, and the natural reaction to joy is to want to share it with others. I’ve done it. “Look how cute they are!” “What a great group of kids!” “Good times!” But as I scrolled through the photos of these kids, arms slung around their best buddies, I couldn’t help but think about the moms whose kids weren’t included in the “Good times!”
I’ve been that mom, the one whose child wasn’t in the picture, and I know how painful it is. But as awful as it is in the moment to know your child has been excluded, the bigger problem with these kinds of posts is that they perpetuate the FOMO culture that is contributing to the crippling epidemic of anxiety and depression our teenagers are facing. As parents, we not only have to model sensitivity, we also have to show our kids that the measure of a great night with friends is not how many LIKES it gets.
Look for role models.
When my children were younger, one of my son’s favorite movies was The Sandlot. It was one of my favorites too because it isn’t just the story of a group of boys who get into trouble. It’s the story about one awkward, lonely boy, Scott Smalls, whose life is forever changed when a cool kid named Benny loans him a baseball glove and asks him to play. I used to tell my son, “Be a Benny.” He knew this was a reminder that he too could change someone’s life by being kind.
My kids might be too old for The Sandlot now, but I am constantly looking for examples, in books, movies, and most of all in real life, of people whose kindness stands out.
Prepare them for the harsh reality of being kind.
If schmaltzy movies and feel-good memes were true, kindness would always result in warm fuzzies. Unfortunately, being kind can actually be really hard. Our kids have to know that doing the right thing, like talking to the odd kid in math class or inviting that awkward girl to join your group at lunch, won’t always feel good. Not everyone will congratulate them for reaching out. In fact, some people will resent it. And inviting a loner to sit with other people, won’t automatically make him less awkward. Sometimes being kind means spending time talking with people we don’t really enjoy, and sometimes it means alienating the people we do.
We all want our kids to be kind, but kindness is like eating vegetables. It isn’t enough just remind our kids to eat their veggies. We have to be veggie eaters too, and we have to help them develop the habit of healthy eating. It’s the same with kindness. Hoping our kids will be kind won't make them so. We have to model kindness and give them concrete tools for reaching out to others. These lessons might make all the difference for our kids and for the ones who need kindness the most.
This post originally appeared on Grown and Flown.