Written by guest author: Thomas Lickona, Developmental Psychologist, author, and host of the PBDA On Topic on January 22, 2020
As our culture grows increasingly angry and polarized, it has never been more important to teach kindness. Kindness sees the good in others. We make other people happy when we treat them kindly, and we are happiest ourselves when we do so. Schools are safer and homes happier when we take deliberate steps to prioritize and practice kindness.
In my guest speaker appearance at Palm Beach Day Academy‘s “PBDA On Topic” series on January 22, I shared some key ways to implement these teachings at home. Below, I’ve outlined 5 ways to start implementing the practice of kindness into your home and family values today. Stay tuned for part two with additional tips!
1. Model and expect kindness
Kids learn the meaning of kindness by the treatment they receive. When I asked my 7-year-old granddaughter, Winnie, “How can parents teach their children to be kind?”, she replied: “They should be kind to them.” She added: “And stop them from being mean.”
We should insist on kindness and respect in all family interactions. Correct unkind or disrespectful talking by gently asking for a “re-do”: “Can you say that in a kinder, more respectful way?” Set an example of kindness and respect by how you treat and talk to each other as parents.
2. Create an intentional family culture
Sit down together and ask, “What kind of a family do we want to be?” and get the kids’ input so they feel ownership. The below mission statement of a family with four children hangs in their kitchen where they can review it at the start of the week and refer to it when needed:
The Davidson Way
We try hard to be kind, honest and fair. We don’t lie, cheat, steal or intentionally hurt others. We don’t whine, complain or make excuses. When we make a mistake, we learn from it and make up for it.
We commit to growing in our faith and trust in God’s goodness.
We live with an attitude of gratitude.
If your family mission statement becomes a continuing point of reference, it will create a shared sense of purpose and identity: “This is how we live; this is who we are.” A weekly family chat helps to hold everyone accountable: “How did we use kind words this week? When did we forget? How can we make next week more kind and peaceful?”
3. Be an authoritative parent
Many parents want to be a “friend” to their child. They have trouble saying no and sticking to it, and trouble getting their kids to obey them and speak to them respectfully. By contrast, effective parents have a strong sense of their moral authority—their right to be respected and obeyed. A half-century of childrearing research has identified three basic styles of parenting:
- Authoritarian (all top-down; high on authority and low on love and reasoning)
- Permissive (high on love, but low on authority; kids rule the roost)
- Authoritative (high on authority, love, and reasoning; valuing obedience but being willing to give kids a fair hearing if they express their viewpoint respectfully).
At all developmental levels—early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence— authoritative parents have been found to have the most confident, competent, and morally responsible children. Don’t let your children speak to you disrespectfully; that’s key in maintaining respect for your authority.
4. Correct hurtful actions clearly, with feeling
In one study, one-third of 1 ½ to 2-year-olds offered comfort or help when they observed someone in distress. The mothers of the compassionate interveners had two notable characteristics: (1) They were warm and nurturing, and (2) when their own child had done something that was hurtful, they had taken it seriously.
For example, a 2-year-old girl who comforted a crying child on the playground had, in the past, once pulled another little girl’s hair. When she did that, her mother had responded:
“You hurt Amy!” (pointing out the effect on the other child)
“Pulling hair hurts!” (an instructive generalization)
“NEVER pull hair!” (a small moral absolute)
By this mother’s clear teaching, conveyed with feeling, she sent a strong message: Hurting is a big deal. As a result, her young daughter was more likely to take it seriously and respond compassionately when she later saw a child crying on the playground. By contrast, the children who did not respond compassionately to others’ distress tended to have mothers who had reacted more casually when their child had done something hurtful (“Now that’s not nice, don’t do that”). Character education must train the heart as well as the mind. We want a child not just to know that something is wrong but also to feel that it is wrong.
5. Require restitution
Kids should learn that when they do something wrong, they can do something right to make up for it. We can suggest how to do that; for example, “You can make up for not being nice to your brother by reading him a story while I’m getting dinner ready.” Once kids have had some practice making restitution, we can shift more of the responsibility to them: “What do you think you can do to make things right?” Whenever possible, restitution should include teaching empathy (“You hurt your sister’s feelings—what can you do to make her feel better?”).
Stay tuned in the coming days for an additional 5 times and more conversation with Dr. Lickona about how to instill a mentality of kindness in our children.
About Thomas Lickona, Ph.D.
Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and professor of education emeritus at the State University of New York at Cortland, where he directs the Center for the Fourth and Fifth Rs, Respect and Responsibility. He writes a blog for Psychology Today called “Raising Kind Kids.” His nine books on character development include Character Matters and How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain (Penguin, 2018). For more information, visit thomaslickona.com.