A few days ago, my son and I approached a crowded grocery store entrance together. I watched as he noticed an older man walking with a cane. He quickly positioned himself so that he could open and hold the door for this man and then ushered me in as well. “That was kind,” I said to him as I felt lit up inside. And that warmth lasted through our shopping excursion. I found myself smiling more easily, speaking gently and kindly to the cashier at the checkout, and feeling more patient with the crushing crowd of pre-football game shoppers.
Research confirms my experience. Kindness is contagious. Studies have shown that people can merely read about acts of kindness without witnessing one and act more kindly going forward.1 And it’s not necessarily the specific act that is contagious but rather, the expression and intention of kindness whatever the act may be.
Acting with kindness can build critical skills for children’s social-emotional development and overall well being, including self-awareness; self-regulation; emotional awareness; relationship skills, and decision-making skills. Furthermore, kindness can increase energy, a sense of well-being, happiness, and even long-term health.2 And as we learn more about the increases in anxiety and depression among pre-teens and teens, it’s kindness that can turn the tide on those states of mind.
So what is this magic elixir – kindness – and how do we give it to our children? Kindness is not a fixed trait that is merely a function of our personality. Instead, it is a decision. It’s an action. It feeds on itself, and one act of kindness leads to another.
Below are a few ways we can encourage kindness in family life and raise children who act with kindness.
Model kindness: Speak kindly to those everyday people in your neighborhood that serve you at the bank, at the grocery, and the gas station. Consider the ripple effect that your kindness will have with your child by your side.
See kind to be kind: Notice and call out nuggets of kindness and small acts of consideration your child might show. For example, “I noticed you let your sister go first. That was kind.” Or “how did it make you feel when you helped that lady pick up her dropped groceries? I know she really appreciated it.” These small reinforcements promote more of the same.
Listen: One of the smallest but most significant daily acts of kindness we can give people is our focused attention. Particularly in our heads-down, screen focused world, listening has become quite a novelty. With children especially, we often respond to their worries with our own set or we recall a story that we think is similar to their experience but may not be. Instead, what if we listened and reflected back the thoughts and feelings we heard? “I hear you are feeling worried about whether Tony is still your friend. You may feel confused too and not know what to do, is that right?” This kind of response can open the door to more intimate conversations as you echo back empathy and your child feels really heard and understood.
Speak compassion: Notice how you and your family talk about others, particularly those who challenge you. Do you voice words of understanding, empathy, and compassion? Instead of “Wendy was acting so rudely after school today,” we might say, “I wonder what’s going on with Wendy that she’s lashing out? I wonder why she would be hurting? How could we help her feel better?”
Speak love: Though you think your children know that you love them, don’t you need to hear it regularly in order to be convinced that others love you? Our children begin to worry about our judgments of them often because they are in the business of making the mistakes required of the learning and development process. Children must feel safe and secure in who they are which starts with your expressions of love for them. They need to know, particularly on days in which they got a bad grade or made a poor choice, that you love them deeply and always no matter what.
Create a gratitude ritual: Gratitude and kindness feed one another. Feeling a sense of appreciation for our lives, our health, and our loved ones creates the frame of mind necessary for us to act with kindness. Pick a time when you’ll be together during a daily routine, such as the ride to school or before a family dinner, and establish a habit of discussing what you treasure about each other and your life.
Serve as a family: Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Everyone can be great because anyone can serve.” And that service does not have to be complicated, elaborate, or grand. In fact, service begins at home. How can all family members contribute to the upkeep of your household? And then, when you look at your community, what needs do you see? How can you discuss those needs and come up with ways as a family you’ll act with kindness to address them?
Below are suggestions for some GoNoodle videos you can use to spark some of the above concepts and ideas and get your kids thinking about and acting in ways that promote kindness, gratitude, and compassion:
Jennifer Miller, MEd. is the author of the new book “Confident Parents, Confident Kids: Raising Emotional Intelligence In Ourselves and Our Kids — From Toddlers to Teenagers.” For 25 years, she’s focused her work on helping adults cultivate children’s social and emotional learning. She lives with her husband and twelve-year-old son in Columbus, Ohio.
1. Zaki, J. (2016). Kindness and Contagion. Scientific American, July.
2. Random Acts of Kindness. (2019). Did you know there are scientifically proven benefits of being kind? Retrieved from https://www.randomactsofkindness.org/the-science-of-kindness on 10/23/19.