“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” (L.R. Knost)
I can remember my mother saying that what she wanted most for her daughters was that they be happy. I think she hoped that we’d figure out on our own how to do that, since it was a state she achieved only rarely, and was therefore unlikely to show us the way.
She said it often enough that I did spend some time pondering happiness as I was growing up. I never equated happiness with wealth or accumulation. I had a pretty strong notion that happiness wasn’t a goal in itself, but more the byproduct of doing what I loved in the company of people I respected and cared about. College and career taught me that happiness resulted when I could explore new ideas, meet challenges, problem-solve, create satisfying results, and improve the world in some small way—again, in the company of good people.
It took me a while, but I’ve finally come to learn that the most direct route to happiness is kindness. When I experience kindness, I am happy. It really is as simple as that. If I extend a kindness, it makes me happy. If I am on the receiving end of kindness, it makes me happy. And if I witness kindness, or even read about it, it makes me happy.
And the research bears this out. In recent years, there have been numerous studies linking kindness and happiness: A study by researchers Kathryn E. Buchanan and Anat Bardi, published in the Journal of Social Psychology concluded that performing acts of kindness resulted in increased life satisfaction. The “Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey,” overseen by researchers from Harvard University, indicates that those who gave contributions of time or money were “42 percent more likely to be happy” than those who didn’t.
Similarly, research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, shows that acts of kindness boost happiness. She cites a recent study that showed “when 9- to 11-year old kids were asked to do acts of kindness for several weeks, not only did they get happier over time but they became more popular with their peers.” Another of her research projects showed that asking employees to be generous to a randomly chosen list of colleagues increased happiness, connectedness, flow, and decreased depression—not just for the givers, but for the recipients, and even for people who merely witnessed the generosity. Once again, the power of kindness knows no bounds!
I wish my mother had known that, but then I also realize that it’s something each of us has to discover for ourselves.
I came across an article not too long ago that summarized a research study conducted by Forum Research at the behest of the Toronto Star. It asked parents and grandparents the most important values they hoped to instill in their children and grandchildren. Kindness, I am happy to report, was the number one value these folks hoped to pass on to children. Thirty percent of respondents rated kindness at the top. Number two was a good work ethic, at 25%. Much lower on the list were ambition (8%), leadership (7%), curiosity (5%), courage (5%), and teamwork (4%).
There is an inherent problem with polls such as this: none of these values exists alone. Kindness requires courage, it also requires curiosity; a good work ethic goes hand-in-hand with leadership and teamwork. Asking people to choose one among such interconnected values is misleading. Nonetheless, I am pleased to see the recognition people have for the importance of kindness, and I hope that parents and grandparents will not only wish it for their kids, but also model it.
How to Raise Kids to Be Kind
Adults who want their kids to learn kindness must realize that such instruction begins at home: in how they see their parents and grandparents treat one another, treat friends, kids, strangers, animals, and even the earth. There are no better mimics than children—what they see, they will imitate. They are also smart enough to recognize that a value not practiced consistently is not a value at all.
Kindness must be evident always, not just when it’s easy. They need to see that their parents will be kind behind the wheel even when other drivers are behaving like jet-propelled morons. They need to see kindness at a crowded sporting event when the beloved home-team is taking a thorough drubbing; and when one is conversing with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to their own; and in the privacy of home when talking about a difficult neighbor, work colleague, or relative.
Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, who directs the University’s Making Caring Common project, identified five ways to raise children to truly value kindness:
- Adults need to show that caring is a priority. They need to assure that their own behaviors match the messages they tell their kids. They need to walk their talk.
- Give kids opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness, and also expressing gratitude. Kindness is a learned behavior and will be strengthened with repeated opportunities to extend oneself and feel the satisfaction of helping. Kids who learn the habit of gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving, as well as happy and healthy.
- Help kids broaden their perspective and their circle of caring. The study describes this as “zooming in” and zooming out”—this means learning to recognize kindness opportunities in one’s circle of friends and family, and also to see the bigger picture of the need for kindness with strangers, the community, and even on a vaster, global scale.
- Provide strong moral role models. Here, researchers stress the need for parents to acknowledge their own mistakes, and to listen to kids and help them understand the world and develop empathy.
- Help kids manage destructive feelings. Feelings such as anger, shame, or envy are unavoidable—but they can be expressed in harmful ways or they can be instructive and constructive. Through conversation, parents can help kids navigate the normal emotional roller-coaster of childhood and adolescence.
Helping children to witness and experience kindness and then talking with them about kindness may be among the most potent of all parenting skills. The result is kind children, who are also happy … and who ultimately will become kind and happy adults. Heaven knows we’re gonna need ’em!
“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” (James Baldwin)