Teaching Kindness

Monday, February 22, 2010

“Be nice.” Do you remember grownups telling you that when you were a kid? I seldom heard specifics about what it meant to be nice. Sometimes they told me to share, or to help others. But most of the time “be nice” meant “Don’t do anything to annoy the grownups.”

Nowadays I think they meant “be kind.” How can we teach kids to be kind? Sure, quoting the Golden Rule is a good start. But as James Baldwin said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

If we model kindness for kids, they will follow our lead. Include kids in your volunteer work. Have them help when you help a neighbor. Treat others with respect. And make sure your actions and words match. If a child sees us being nice to someone’s face, but saying unkind things when the person is out of earshot, the child will learn a very different lesson from the one we intended!

Kids learn a lot from adults when we aren’t thinking about what we’re teaching. In less guarded moments, do your words reflect kindness toward others? Make an effort to eliminate negative, unkind words and phrases from your own vocabulary such as stupid, shut up, idiot, retarded (a particularly hurtful term to many people), or other words that are racist or biased. When your child uses such terms or words, remind him that words can hurt and ask him to rephrase what he intended to say.

Another way to teach kindness to children is by being kind and respectful to them. Having a kind household doesn’t mean never punishing kids for their choices. It does mean being fair and firm and explaining the consequences of their behavior. And it means being polite to them!

And speaking of behavior…remember that kids love attention. If the only attention a child gets is when he misbehaves, you can expect a lot more misbehavior. Catch kids doing something right. Acknowledge it when they are kind and helpful. While you don’t want kids “being nice” only to get a reward, there’s nothing wrong with putting a star on the fridge or bulletin board whenever you catch them being kind. Even better, let them catch you bragging on them to grandparents or other family members.

Remember, though, that praise can backfire if it’s “global” in nature. Say for instance that your ten-year-old child tidies her room. You come in and slather on the praise like Miracle Whip:

“This room is PERFECT!”
“I’ve never seen this room look better!”
“You are the most organized child I’ve ever met!”

Kids tend to internally reject praise like this, because they know it’s bogus. Internally, that ten-year-old might be saying, “Wow, please don’t look in the closet where I jammed all of my toys.” Instead, try being specific with your praise and describe what you see:

“I see a bed that’s neatly made, and a table that’s cleaned off. And I see you stacked all of your books on the shelf. It’s easy to walk in here now that the floor is clean. This room is a pleasure to look at!”

The child’s internal conversation is likely to be very different because you didn’t evaluate the child. You simply described what you saw and allowed the child to draw the conclusion: “Yeah, I did a pretty good job, didn’t I?”

(For more information on praise that works with kids, check out the book “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.)

Involve kids in household chores, and be sure chores aren’t used as punishment. Even young kids can do small tasks such as picking up papers or setting the table for dinner. If chores are seen as simply something we all do together to make our home a pleasant place to live, kids will be less likely to balk.

Take kindness outside the home. Sign your family up for a charity walk or a volunteer experience at a soup kitchen or nursing home. If you have some money to donate, talk with your kids about the best way to make a difference with the money.

Here’s one way to start a kindness revolution in your neighborhood. February is National Bird Feeding Month. Work with your kids to create feeding places for the birds in your area. There are some terrific projects available at http://kidscrafts.suite101.com/article.cfm/bird_feeders_to_make_with_kids

Promote kindness with a sense of joy. Help kids see that the adults around them enjoy giving and receiving kindness, and that they can share in this joy.

By Mary Armstrong-Smith, Community Partners Director
Prevent Child Abuse Indiana

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