You already know you should teach your children how to tie their shoes, answer the phone and safely cross a street. But what about teaching them to be kind? Like any parent, Sheila Sjolseth, a 39-year-old McKinney, Texas mother of two sons, Everett, 8, and Merritt, 6, wants her children to recognize need and respond to it. But instead of leaving it to chance, she and her husband Erik are deliberately creating a culture of caring at home, where acts of kindness have become as ordinary as playing with monster trucks, chowing down on pizza or running around in the backyard.
Whether they’re pulling weeds for a sick friend, writing encouraging notes to each other on the bathroom mirror or delivering homemade chemotherapy care kits to a local oncology office, the Sjolseth family has fallen into a steady rhythm of everyday kindness. Sjolseth chronicles her brood’s adventures-in-caring on her blog, Pennies of Time, where she offers ideas for dozens of easy—and often free—service projects for children and families. “Kids have a natural capacity for caring, but that has to be nurtured, and you have to be willing to help them follow through with it as soon as they’re inspired,” Sjolseth says.
“When you make an effort, as a parent, to model kindness, it doesn’t take long for kids to pick it up themselves.” But kindness isn’t necessarily top of mind for many kids. A 2014 study conducted as part of Harvard University’s Making Caring Common Project reported that only 22 percent of 10,000 youth surveyed identified caring for others as their top priority. The remaining 78 percent pegged personal happiness or high achievement as their primary goals. And at a time when online bullies and classroom tormenters aren’t uncommon, kindness is crucial. Diane Levin, author of Beyond Remote-Controlled Childhood, says parents must learn to listen to their children and communicate the necessity of kindness without sounding preachy.
“Children aren’t born with empathy,” Levin says. “There are so many new challenges today that we haven’t seen before, so empowering them with ways to be kind is vital, as is recognizing that kindness doesn’t have to be about special activities—it’s a way of living.” That has certainly proven true in the Sjolseth household, where the focus on kindness has yielded some unexpected fringe benefits. “Our home is a very peaceful place. The boys may occasionally get into a spat, but overall they are happy and nice to each other,” Sjolseth says. “I really think it can be credited to their efforts in kindness toward others. It is making a tremendous difference in who they are becoming.”
Kindness at Any Age
BIRTH TO 4 YEARS OLD
- Encourage the use of please.
- Discourage the use of I want.
- Emphasize constantly the importance of sharing.
5 TO 9 YEARS OLD
- As they head out the door for school each day, remind them to do one kind thing.
- Expose them to teens and adults who demonstrate kindness.
10 TO 14 YEARS OLD
- Encourage them to seek out ways to make life easier for others—make beds or clean a sibling’s room without being asked.
- Remind them to be a positive example for younger children.
Dos and Don’ts of Raising Kind Kids
- DO talk regularly about ways to show compassion.
- DON’T neglect to correct them when they’re being unkind.
- DO teach them to make eye contact and smile when interacting with others.
- DON’T allow them to have unlimited “screen time,” which can foster antisocial behavior.
- DO model kindness in your own life.
- DON’T lecture them about kindness.
- DO expose them to people in need.
- DON’T encourage feelings of superiority to the people they help.
- DO discuss how they feel when someone has been unkind to them.
- DON’T make a habit of praising kindness, which can create a goodness-for-reward mentality.
- Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn
- Sprinkle Your Sparkles by Kirsten Tulsian and Mary Gregg Byrne
- The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton
- How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids by Tom Rath, Mary Reckmeyer and Maurie J. Manning