The real test of parenting is not what your children achieve, but who they become and how they treat others. If you teach them to be kind, you’re not only setting your kids up for success. You’re setting up the kids around them, too. — Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant
Today’s world poses specific and significant challenges to raising children who are kind and who grow up to be caring adults. The primacy of social media in our daily lives and the nature of constantly changing digital information means that people have the ability to fire off anonymous feedback and commentary. The norm has become real-time comparison and it can seem like there is ceaseless judgment among friends and strangers alike. The pressure to measure up to the perceived reality (whether or not it actually is reality) can feel relentless.
Extending beyond social media, there also seems to be a cultural focus on success when it comes to raising children. This constant pressure to raise successful children often edges out certain developmentally-enriching activities and priorities, like cultivating empathy, providing unstructured time in nature, and even getting adequate sleep at night.
The pressure for children and teens to succeed – and for parents to foster this success – is real. Interestingly, the emphasis on achievement over and above other values is actually incongruent with what most parents say they’re aiming for in child-rearing. As Adam and Allison Grant point out in their widely shared essay in The Atlantic, though the vast majority of parents say that they prioritize raising caring, compassionate kids, most children report that their parents are actually more focused on achievement. This gap in perception should prompt us to pause and reassess what we value and how we’re communicating our values to our kids.
The science tells us that people are naturally inclined to be empathetic. In fact, we see children’s proclivity for caring starting as young as age two. By age four, children know when they’ve hurt someone. And by ages five and six, children are more capable of sharing and can understand how to be helpful. As parents, our job is to draw out our kids’ natural proclivity for kindness, to teach them the importance of caring for others, to nudge them to look beyond themselves and make choices that benefit those around them.
But what does this look like in our daily lives? How do we achieve this in the midst of our busy schedules and competing obligations? It starts with creating a family culture of kindness and caring, and we’re sharing five strategies to help you get the process started!
- Foster an awareness of feelings.
When we’re cognizant of our feelings, we can work through big emotions—even negative ones—productively. Conversely, when we are unaware of, ignore, or stifle emotions like anger, resentment, and frustration, we tend to act out—unwittingly punishing those around us with harsh words or eventually even “exploding” with a melt-down or outburst. Encourage your children to name their feelings, especially when they’re having a hard time. Consider yourself an emotion coach. When you name your children’s emotions and validate how they’re feeling, they’ll learn to do the same.
For instance, if your young child wails when you tell her to turn off the T.V., don’t try to talk her out of her anger. Instead, acknowledge that changing activities can be frustrating. You could try saying something like “it sounds like you’re really angry because T.V. time is over!” Of course, this can be a helpful exercise with positive emotions as well. Help your child revel in moments of happiness and excitement. The more emotionally intelligent our children are, the more empathetic they will become. When they can claim their own feelings, they become adept at attuning to the feelings of others.
- Model kindness and respect.
Our children watch and learn from how we treat others. It’s crucial that our behavior embodies the values we’re trying to teach them. Of course, this starts at home. Be sure to talk to your kids and your partner using a respectful tone and kind words. Know that you’re going to make mistakes in front of your kids. That’s OK! Own up to your errors—apologize and talk about how you’re feeling. Children need to know that parents aren’t perfect. Learning how to apologize and make things right when we make a misstep can be a huge learning opportunity for everyone.
- Teach your kids about mindfulness.
When we find ourselves in difficult situations, mindfulness practices can help us pause before reacting, often preventing us from saying or doing things we regret. Simple exercises like taking deep breaths can help children respond thoughtfully instead of impulsively. Long-term, by teaching our children mindfulness habits—yoga and journaling, for instance—we’re training their brains and bodies to self-regulate when things get tough, ultimately nurturing a kinder and gentler spirit.
- Start a family gratitude practice.
Gratitude and kindness are inextricably linked—they reinforce one another. We know that practicing gratitude fosters more positive emotions and equips us to respond to adversity. Likewise, engaging in acts of kindness makes us more grateful for what we have. Consider establishing a family gratitude practice. At mealtime, take turns naming what you’re thankful for. Make an ongoing family gratitude list and tape it to your wall. And when you’re feeling grateful for something, mention it aloud to your kids in the moment. Fostering a collective sense of gratitude doesn’t have to be complicated and has the power to shape our outlooks towards others.
- Celebrate acts of kindness and generosity.
When your kid scores a goal or does great on a test, chances are you praise them with high fives, fist bumps, hugs, and big smiles. These types of positive interactions with our kids are so important. What if we responded to acts of kindness with similar gusto? Our reactions communicate the value we assign to things around us, so be on the lookout for your kids showing empathy and helping others. Catch them in these acts of kindness. Let them know you see them and that you’re proud of the caring person they have become.
There’s nothing more important than raising caring, kind humans. It’s inspiring to realize that we have the power to encourage the next generation to spend more time thinking about how to be compassionate as opposed to how to be right. And the amazing thing is: when we commit to teaching our kids kindness, we start holding ourselves accountable for our own behavior, and we become more mindful of how we’re treating those around us. In other words, as we teach our children to be kind, we end up learning and growing alongside them.