Written by guest author: Thomas Lickona, Developmental Psychologist, author, and host of the PBDA On Topic on January 22, 2020
My previous blog post outlined five crucial things that parents can begin to implement in their homes and family life to help cultivate kindness among their kids. When we take deliberate steps to prioritize and practice kindness, we are helping not just ourselves and our children, but future generations to come. If you missed the last blog post, you can view it here.
Keep reading for five additional tips on how to implement the practice of kindness into your home and family values today.
1. Give kids real responsibilities
At the heart of kindness is a spirit of helpfulness. If adults are doing all the giving in family life and children all the taking, that’s a recipe for producing entitled kids like the 15-year-old boy who, when asked to mow the lawn, said, “Why should I mow the lawn? It’s not my lawn.” The best antidote for that kind of self-centeredness is for children to have meaningful responsibilities in their families from the earliest years. One of my favorite examples of training kids early in the habit of helping comes from a Chicago mother of three:
“Our boys are now 2, 4, and 6. At this point, the system in our house is that you do one chore for each year of your age. We add a chore each year. Our 2-year-old pushes the button to start the dishwasher and puts the pillows in place when we make the beds. At 3, he’ll help to set the table. Our 4-year-old sets the table, dust-busts the front hall, and cleans the downstairs sink and tub. Our 6-year-old vacuums the stairs, makes his bed, washes the upstairs sink and toilet, scrapes the dishes, loads the dishwasher, and pours the milk at dinner. I tell them how much I appreciate their help. They’re very proud of what they do.”
Research finds that when children have regular chores, they develop a greater concern for others. Don’t pay kids for chores; that robs them of the opportunity to be contributing family members.
2. Extend compassion beyond the family
We also want our kids to have the experience of helping people outside the family. One mother described a Lenten tradition her family had recently begun—something their 6-year-old son proposed they do after their priest gave a moving homily on world hunger. On the first night of each week, the family had a “fasting dinner”—usually a piece of fruit for each of the kids and a cup of broth for the parents. (The kids had cereal before bed to quiet growling stomachs.)
The money saved by not having a regular dinner was put into a jar and sent to a charitable organization working to relieve world hunger and poverty. Sometimes, at the meal, the mother or father read a letter from the charity reporting progress in relieving a crisis in one part of the world or the outbreak of a new crisis somewhere else.
“It helps us to be aware of how much suffering there is and to enter into that in a small way. We want our kids to know that God calls us to love our neighbor, wherever our neighbor is.”Mother of three
3. Get control of screens
Values are transmitted and character formed to a large degree through human interactions, especially face-to-face conversations. But our children now spend much more time interacting with screens than they do with us. To increase good conversation in the home, I encourage parents to take advantage of Harvard’s Family Dinner Project; its website provides online dinner recipes and dozens of conversation starters, like “What makes you feel loved?” “What do you wish we did more as a family?” “What are three things you can do to make other people happy?”
Too much screen time also produces irritable brains and problem behavior. Many parents who have tried the “electronic fast” recommended by psychiatrist Victoria Dunckley in her book Reset Your Child’s Brain have reported improvements, sometimes dramatic, in their kids’ sleep, mood, manners, listening, and overall behavior. Says one mother: “My 3-year-old went from three to five meltdowns a day to one or less and from aggression toward his 1-year-old brother to playing with him gently. My 7-year-old no longer constantly complains about being bored but plays creatively with his toys and enjoys drawing.”
Arguably most worrisome is the fact that screens connect kids with a universe of information, images and influences, some of them highly toxic. In the US and UK, the average age at which boys begin to access internet pornography is now 11. In October 2015, the American College of Pediatrics issued “The Impact of Pornography on Children,” reporting that youth consumption of pornography is linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, violent behavior, early sexual debut, sexual promiscuity and higher rates of teen pregnancy. If you have an elementary-school-aged child, I recommend the picture book, Good Pictures Bad Pictures: Porn-Proofing Today’s Young Kids by Kristen Jenson and Dr. Gail Poyner. Also check out Jenson’s blog, ProtectYoungMinds.org.
4. Teach the courage to be kind
Worldwide, one out of three kids reports being bullied. Unfortunately, most of the time the kids who witness school bullying do nothing to help. But as parents and teachers, we can teach kids to have the courage and compassion to be “peer allies”—to say something if they can, take the bullied student to an adult who can help, or just offer companionship and support. Bullied students say that peers who provide emotional support (“They were always at my side to make sure I was OK”) are of even more help than those who directly confront the bullies. Victims of peer cruelty who get this kind of support from caring schoolmates are less likely to suffer debilitating anxiety and depression. The Youth Voice Project calls these peer allies “quiet heroes.”
5. Read books that cultivate kindness
Especially with kids for whom kindness doesn’t come naturally, good books can be one of our best allies. William Kilpatrick’s Books That Build Character provides a rich annotated bibliography of fiction and non-fiction books with strong character themes. Two recent articles provide helpful descriptions of kindness-themed picture books: Brightly’s “5 Books That Teach Kids What It Means to Be a Kind Person” and “Children’s Books That Show Kids the Goodness in the World.” Books that show the many inspiring ways that people do good for others give us an opening for talking with our kids about how we each can make a positive difference in the world, especially through kindness.
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.