A few years ago, my 4 year old son pinched a little girl on the nose at her birthday party so hard that she cried for the rest of the day. Her parents were horrified. I wasn’t surprised, this was not new behaviour.
Some people made excuses for him, but ‘being a boy’ is certainly not a valid one. Nor, I believed, was being 4 years old.
There’s nothing more embarrassing than seeing your kid be unkind to another.
I was nervous all the time in public with him, and I knew other parents would see him coming and grit their teeth. It was like Godzilla was approaching.
I tried a lot of techniques to get him to see that his actions made people sad, and there were repercussions, but nothing seemed to sink in, he wanted to destroy.
I know he was just a little boy, but he was fierce, merciless and without remorse. People used to joke that he would end up in prison. It wasn’t funny.
Fast forward 3 years later and he received an award for kindness at school assembly at the end of the year. It made my heart soar.
He is now lovely to smaller children than him, a real baby lover. He is mostly polite to adults and is even sometimes reasonable to his sister. We’ve come a long way (even though ‘The Great LEGO Incident of Christmas 2019’ happened – which is never to be spoken of again. So, there is still some way to go).
We’ve all seen our kids be kind because they knew we were watching, or because someone told them to be kind, but how do we teach them to be instinctively kind?
Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist who carries out research into children’s empathy levels and the way they interact with each other carried out a study in the U.S. 80% of the kids he spoke to said their parents cared more about their happiness and academic achievements than how kind and empathic they were.
Richard told Harvard Education Resources, “Kindness is the heart of what it means it be human, and it’s the heart of a functioning, moral society. Kids learn about what kindness looks like in their key relationships.” He says our job as adults is to guide them, accepting that becoming kind is a process, it takes time.
“They can also be very egocentric and selfish. From moment to moment, they can shift from being selfish to being kind and back again. Our job as adults is to create cultures that support their kindness and discourage unkindness.”
Cathie Harrison, early childhood expert, agrees to a point, but believes kids aren’t being selfish as much as simply being absorbed in an activity or thought. “Young children are often characterised as self centred and egocentric. Although at times they are very self absorbed in new discoveries, play and imagination they also demonstrate remarkable acts of kindness toward others. Even as toddlers young children are aware of what their friends or younger children might need to bring comfort or reassurance. They may offer a distressed child a favourite toy or even their own comforter.”
I’m trying to make my kids think more globally and hoping this will not only make them empathic, but also feel empowered to bring about real change.
When the fires broke out, we baked cupcakes for injured Koalas and made a stall and sold them to passers-by. Sure, it was (I’m ashamed to admit), a Grammable moment for me. And the kids were initially resistant, but by the end we were amazed at the kindness of strangers who wanted to help. It made them feel proud that they were able to make a difference.
All of us parents want to make the world a better place for our kids, and what better way than to get the generation who’ll take over from us make positive changes (however small).
Childhood experts agree, there are a few ways we can boost the kindness in our kids:
Talking about feelings.
Talking about how things make us feel, good and bad will show kids that it’s ok to have feelings. Acknowledging when our kids are scared, sad and worried before trying to ‘fix’ it all the time is a great way to allow them to experience emotions.
Once our kids can identify their feelings, they will hopefully be able to recognise other’s feelings and be able to see the consequences of their actions.
Not always putting themselves first
Experts say kids should be encouraged to care for others.
This means speaking respectfully, learning to share, looking after others and thinking about consequences.
Knowing the consequences of what happens when they push in line, quit a team or are unkind to a friend can be helpful. But also, how good it feels to stick up for someone, share something or work together.
Giving them a chance to express gratitude
Apparently, we shouldn’t be praising (or bribing – guilty) our kids for every helpful thing they do around the house. Our kids need to learn gratitude and that can be expressed by pitching in where needed, just because that’s the right thing to do.
Also giving our kids the opportunity to talk about what they are thankful for will instil a sense of gratitude. I think most adults could benefit from this too, and sounds like an easy New Year’s resolution for the dinner table.
Practice what we preach.
Our kids will never be kind if they see us being rude, uncaring and complacent.
Picking up a bit of rubbish on the beach, helping someone down the steps with a pram, bringing in the neighbour’s bins - these may seem insignificant to us, but these kids are watching and taking note.
The most important one for me though, is acknowledging our flaws and being able to apologise. No parent is perfect. And our kids need to see us being human if we ever have any hope of them becoming good humans.
Cathie adds, “We can encourage awareness of others and acts of kindness by helping children to see and hear the emotional responses of others and by involving them in acts of caring and kindness, to others and to animals and plants. We can encourage interdependence rather than independence and model acts of caring and kindness in everyday encounters. Children learn what those around them value so we all have a role to play in creating a culture of kindness.”