If my son does not get accepted into Harvard or win a Pulitzer, I will not be bothered, but if he fails to become a kind person, I will be dissatisfied. I consider it my responsibility as a parent to keep food in his stomach, shelter over his head, and clothes on his back; however, my highest calling is to teach him to be a compassionate person.
So, how does a parent teach a child to look beyond themselves and behave kindly? First, an adequate definition of kindness is needed. Kindness is NOT the same as politeness. Kindness is NOT a matter of manners. Kindness is NOT a matter of being "a nice boy" or "nice girl." Many people are perfectly polite and well-mannered on the surface, yet behave manipulatively and viciously behind the scenes. Their behavior does not qualify as kind.
No, kindness does not equal a polite facade; rather, it emanates from the core of a person. It is a choice followed by behavior. It is a way of life. Sometimes kindness is the exact opposite of politeness. Performing a kind act can be hard because it involves lowering your facade and speaking truth, painful as it may be, to another person or group. Kindness requires saying no and often ending relationships that promote cruelty. Kindness is complicated.
So, let's teach our children not to put on a polite show, but to genuinely consider what it means to care for others. Children learn kindness in multiples ways and here are a few I have observed:
- Children need their feelings validated. In order to learn to respond to the feelings of others, they need their emotions and thoughts respected. They need mirrors, their parents, who reflect back to them the validity of their anger, sadness, joy, and frustration, so they know their feelings are acceptable. It's common sense, but we often forget to give this attention. Its called empathy and it builds healthy relationships.
- Children need models to learn kind behavior. Children surrounded by kind people learn to emulate kind behavior and those surrounded by disrespectful people learn to disrespect others. I understand this is not a mind-blowing observation, but we tend to forget this too. Little eyes are watching every move we make, even when it seems like they are not. How are you modeling kindness to your children? What do they see?
- Children need to be removed from their bubble. From an early age, they need to cross paths with other children and adults from different backgrounds. They need to see a larger picture of the world and its inhabitants, especially people from different socio-economic backgrounds. It's so easy to settle into a community of like-minded people who share our same status and never leave. Children need to be given the opportunity to understand the experience of someone different than them.
- Children need moral codes to aim at in their lives. Whether if it is a religious or secular code, children needs healthy, ethical standards to use as a measuring stick. Stories, containing kind characters, are a powerful way to teach kindness and reveal moral codes in which to aspire. There are plenty of characters known for their fierce fighting, cool costumes, and interesting weapons, but what about a hero saves the day by caring for others?
- Children need opportunies to demonstrate kindness. Just like a kid needs a bike, helmet, and smooth surface to learn how to ride on two wheels, children need situations to learn how to behave kindly. Where can they live out kind behavior? Where they can serve?
Here is the unexpected part: Teaching your child kindness will change you. Like children, parents are on the learning curve. We always need to relearn the art of kindness. Teaching our children opens us to the areas in our lives where we are withholding or resisting kindness. This is challenging, yet necessary work, to build not only a kind child, but also kind relationships, communities, nations, and a kinder world. Kindness is the path leading us forward to a healthier society.