As parents, we have goals for our children; we have hopes. We dream of our babies one day becoming doctors and engineers, baseball players and musicians. We envision the future, where they are successful adults with little hardship, because we want only joy for them. We wish for them less struggle than we faced, less hurt, and above all else, we wish for them to be happy.
We promise ourselves we’ll do whatever we can to ensure our children are happy. We read parenting books, listen to podcasts, talk to other moms and dads, searching for ways to guarantee happiness. And these different resources all reveal the same concept: when we raise kind kids, we raise happy kids.
Experts in psychology tell us that there is a direct correlation between happiness and kindness. “If parents want their kids to be happy, teaching kindness needs to be a priority,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Alexandra Volkheimer. “Being kind to others improves self-esteem and mood, which are key ingredients in happiness.”
Volkheimer notes that even just observing kindness has positive effects. She explains that when we witness an act of kindness, it triggers the production of serotonin, the “happiness hormone,” as well as oxytocin, the “love hormone,” which is associated with increased optimism, confidence, and lower blood pressure. “We know that kindness is good for the mind and the body,” she says.
Of the many lessons and skills I will try to teach my son as he grows up, raising him to be kind is number one. In a world that sees far too much cruelty and judgment, I have promised myself I will achieve this; I will raise a kind, empathic human. It’s crucial, and much more important to me than his grades, his athleticism, his appearance. Of course, I want him to have a thirst for knowledge, to chase after big dreams, but I also want—no, need—him to be able to empathize with others and to understand the power of kindness. I need him to see the impact of being kind and the depths it can reach. And it’s up to my husband and I to show him.
“From infancy, we are teaching our children how to treat others by the way we treat them. How we respond to our children on a moment-to-moment basis creates a pattern that our children may follow for a lifetime.”– Hunter Clarke-Fields
In Raising Good Humans: A Mindful Guide to Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting and Raising Kind, Confident Kids, author Hunter Clarke-Fields writes, “You’ve probably realized already that children tend to be terrible at doing what we say, but great at doing what we do. From infancy, we are teaching our children how to treat others by the way we treat them. How we respond to our children on a moment-to-moment basis creates a pattern that our children may follow for a lifetime. Therefore, the onus is on us to behave the way we want our children to behave.”
Our acts of kindness should not be random; they should be constant, deliberate. Being kind should be part of our routine—wake up; be kind; put on a pot of coffee; be kind; go to work; be kind; go to the grocery store; be kind; cook dinner for the family; be kind; catch up on your favorite TV crime drama; be kind; get some sleep; repeat. We must teach our children that kindness is something that should always be carried with them. It should always be at the forefront of their actions, and it should prevail above everything else.
“We raise our children to be kind and empathic by being kind and empathic,” says licensed social worker and psychoanalyst Erica Komisar, author of Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety. “Kindness breeds kindness,” she notes. “And if you’re kind to your doorman or elevator man; if you’re kind to your friends; if you’re kind to your spouse; if you’re kind to your animals, children will model your behavior.”
Tips for Raising Children to be Kind and Empathic
Prioritize kindness and set expectations
If we want our children to be able to step inside someone else’s shoes and show them compassion, it’s important we tell them that being kind to others is a top priority and just as important as their own happiness. They must understand how seriously we take this. “Make it known that being kind is non negotiable…that you expect it from them,” suggests Volkheimer. “Kids don’t like to disappoint their parents, so let them know what the consequences would be if you were to witness them being unkind.” Will bullying be tolerated in your household? Let your children know that any action with the intent to hurt someone, physically or emotionally, is not acceptable.
Listen to the Podcast
In this episode, hear from Danielle Matthew, a licensed marriage and family therapist, about how to prevent kids from becoming bullies and what to do if kids are being bullied. She shares valuable tips on how to talk to your children about bullying, what to do when others are being bullied, and so much more.
Be a strong role model and practice what you preach
In certain respects, learning empathy is similar to learning a language or a sport; it requires practice and guidance. Our children learn by watching what we do, so we must make sure we are always being kind and polite—in every situation. The more our children hear us say things like “thank you” and “please,” the more likely they are to do the same. “The most important thing is to model sensitivity and empathy for your children. When you model it, they practice it. If your words don’t match your actions, there’s no use. There’s no use in teaching something to your children that you yourself don’t practice,” Komisar says.
Use the language of kindness
Incorporating kind language into conversations helps convey to your children how highly you value it. For example: “Would you be kind enough to grab me a glass of water from the kitchen?” Or “Thank you. That was very kind of you.” The more our children hear words and phrases related to kindness, the more natural it will come to them.
As Komisar points out, it’s also important that as parents, we extend kindness to many types of people—not just those in our immediate circle, not just those who look or speak like we do. We must demonstrate compassion and empathy to people who are different from us and engage in conversations with our children about diversity.
Tips for Raising Children Who Accept, Respect, and Celebrate Differences
Champion their curiosity and acknowledge others’ differences. Children are naturally curious and we should encourage them to ask questions related to others’ differences. Do not pretend we are all the same. We are all different, and our differences should be celebrated.
Encourage friendships and social interaction. Forming personal connections with people different from ourselves leads to reduced prejudice and increased understanding. It’s important that we encourage our children to get to know people unlike themselves.
Help build their self-esteem. The late psychotherapist and founder of the self-esteem movement in psychology, Nathaniel Branden, wrote, “There is overwhelming evidence that the higher the level of self-esteem, the more likely one will be to treat others with respect, kindness, and generosity.” Letting our children know how much we love them, praising them and others, asking for their advice or opinion, and helping them achieve goals all foster high self-esteem.