Kindness Takes Practice

“It was his idea”, my bundle of kindness muttered as he lowered his eyes to the floor. Joy to my ears as this was, there was still the business of him participating. I will spare you the gory details of the incident. In short, three boys played rough, two formed a partnership and the third one suffered extremely unpleasant consequences. Summoning the remnants of my patience I asked him why he took part in something that he knew was not good. My son’s reply made me crave a generous glass of wine that evening. From his perspective he was being helpful—the proposed game had to be played, he merely attended to the task.

It turns out, that our kids don’t come fitted with a “nice” button. It’s a feature we have to design and teach them how to use. Sadly, I’ve come to this idea retrospectively. I say this because my older son knows how to do too many things well for me to claim that I hadn't had enough time to “teach” him kindness. We are a very organized family. Kids have been successfully potty trained and taught the essentials of hygiene. They know locations of necessary supplies around the house—they can find a Band-Aid and they can reach their cereal box. That’s not all! They know not to eat with their hands and they know to wear clothing when in public. (Fine, the three-year-old still needs reminders, but you get the point.) I have spent an enormous amount of time outfitting my boys with habits needed to be functional members of society. What’s more, they've been enrolled into good schools and enriched to the tee in all sorts of classes and activities. The “highlight” of each August is when I get to make a schedule and fill my kids’ time in the coming school year with science, arts, sports, foreign languages, you name it. Yet, I never block off any time for empathy, sympathy, or good deeds.

Playing devil’s advocate, I’d tell you that kids will learn to be kind by observing their parents. Though judging by the incident prompting this post such a method hadn't been very successful. But there is a big difference between not displaying unkind behavior and making a point of showing how to be kind. Research shows that empathic actions need to be repeatedly modeled by adults and encouraged in children before they become part of their behavior. And developing empathy is a major step in teaching children to be kind.

Dr. Ervin Staub, a Professor of Psychology, Emeritus, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explores how feelings of caring and altruism develop in children in his book, "The Psychology of Good and Evil". In his quest to look at the roots of violence and how we can create peaceful societies, Dr. Staub argues that there are ways parents can encourage compassion. He suggests attending to our children’s emotional needs because that is a prerequisite for them to be open to the needs of others. We should, also, be pointing out the consequences of our children’s behavior, both good and bad—understanding how they make other people feel will slowly begin to inform their choices. And we should actively enlist our children in projects that help others. When we let them find moments to do good deeds we are offering them ways to practice being kind.

I doubt I’ll turn this experience into scheduled “lessons in kindness”. But I will certainly spend more time creating opportunities for my kids to care about others. I don’t know how useful those music lessons or soccer practices will be to our children when they are all grown up. But, I believe that an ability to appreciate and deliver kindness will go a long way!

How do you practice kindness at home? 

(Please note, this post includes an amazon affiliate link)

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