Originally Published on Mother.ly
by Amy Webb
When parents are asked what they want most for their kids, the answers routinely fall into one of a few categories: “I want my kids to be happy,” “I want my kids to be kind to others,” or “I want my kids to have a good life.”
We have all probably uttered these statements ourselves (or at least thought them). What if ultimately all these ideals are tied up together? What if being kind really is the thing that will make our kids happy and have a good life?
More and more researchers are delving into the inner workings of how we raise kids who are kind and compassionate. What they are finding can help all of us parents on our path to give our kids “a good life.”
Kids start out compassionate
Remember the first time your toddler got upset because another child was crying? At that moment, you were probably touched and amazed at this little person’s ability to empathize. In reality, all kids are wired for empathy.
In research labs, babies as young as 6 months old choose to play with the puppet that is kind and helpful towards the other puppets. It is part of our human nature to be drawn towards helpful people, and try to be helpful ourselves.
Outside influences matter
If kids are wired for kindness, then why is there such a prevalence of bullying and teasing in elementary school and beyond? Well, it does seem that as kids grow, the onslaught of outside influences starts to push kids in the opposite direction.
Although we are wired for empathy and tuned to the feelings of others (at least to some degree), these emotional skills do have to be practiced if they are to grow into adulthood.
One of the most compelling lines of research in this area is from Harvard’s Making Caring Common project. After interviewing thousands of middle and high schoolers the researchers began to see the full picture of what’s going on.
One of the most striking findings was that the majority of teens (80 percent) value achievement (such as academic or athletic) and happiness over caring for others (20 percent) when ranking their top priorities. Similarly, when ranking specific values, students consistently rated items like hard work over fairness or kindness.
And although most parents say they value kindness in their kids, most kids feel their parents value achievement. This is what the researchers call the “rhetoric/reality gap.” In other words, we parents are “talking the talk” about kindness but not “walking the walk.”
We say we want our kids to be kind, but we are not modeling it or reinforcing the value in everyday life. Over time, if the social-emotional skills (like kindness) are not fostered or reinforced through practice, kids start to slip into the teasing and bullying we often see.
“Although most parents say they value kindness in their kids, most kids feel their parents value achievement.”
The good news is that this trend can be turned around. Both research and real-life examples show us that if kindness and empathy are modeled to kids in everyday life they are much more likely to continue this attitude into middle school and beyond.
Modeling empathy starts early. Research indicates that if parents use more descriptive language in explaining how other people might be feeling, even toddlers are more likely to learn perspective-taking.
Perspective-taking is the basis of empathy — simply the ability to look at a situation from another’s perspective. Very young children simply do not have the brain development to accomplish this feat until around 4 years old, but talking about others’ feelings even before that can still help.
As kids grow, the opportunities to model kindness expand even more. Kids in elementary schools that have programs focusing on social-emotional learning are much more likely to stay on a path of kindness rather than slip into selfishness as the typical pattern of behavior suggests.
These types of programs help kids model kindness among their peers and focus on the innate advantages of compassion. In the early years, kids are often rewarded for kind acts (e.g., stickers, etc.) but this is just to reinforce the behavior so it becomes a life habit.
Kindness leads to happiness
We as parents know from experience that in the big picture of life, kindness and happiness are closely linked. Kids, however, do not have the life experience to see this big picture. In their life with friends or at school, retaliating against the kid who teased them often seems like the better choice. The more we can explain and model the inherent benefits of kindness to both others and themselves, the more this dynamic will be clear to them.
This is another area where research is our friend. Numerous studies have shown that even among middle schoolers, those who practice kindness are more popular, happier and less likely to be bullied.
Wanting our kids to be happy and have a good life is an honorable goal. What science (and life experience) helps us understand is that the path to happiness is often paved by kindness and empathy, not only achievement and success.
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