May 25th, 2020

Catching kindness

You may be aware that last week was Mental Health Awareness week in the UK and the theme for this year is kindness. Kindness is obviously not something we just want to look at in one particular week but something to encourage in our children throughout their lives.

Dictionaries define kindness as the quality of being friendly, generous, considerate and caring. I would also include empathy, since the ability to recognise how others feel is a prerequisite to caring, concern and consideration. These are qualities that are not necessarily innate in a person. Parents can encourage kindness in children. We can build the skill of empathy.

So why do we need to encourage kindness and empathy? Well one of the lessons from the coronavirus pandemic is a reminder that human beings are inherently social creatures. We need to connect to each other. We rely on cooperation to survive and thrive. There is much research which shows that cooperation, rather than competition, produces better strategies faster to deal with problems. It will be interesting to see what approaches affect the development of Covid-19 vaccines. There are many examples that have emerged from this health crisis of kindnesses from one person to another. I have loved the feeling of togetherness in my neighbourhood as people have greeted and looked out for one another. Many apps and online groups have sprung up offering to help those in need at this time and there have been many heart-warming stories of support.

We know that mental health is very much improved by small acts of kindness or connections, whether as the recipient or the person doing that act of giving. Research shows that kindness is the antidote to stress and it can increase happiness and self-esteem. There is evidence that small acts of altruism improve our self-image, and our behaviour. There is also evidence that kindness can improve our physical health and academic performance as well as prolonging our lives! 

We want our children to learn to be kind of course so that they will enjoy good and meaningful friendships. By encouraging kindness in our children we can reduce the epidemic of bullying that is causing so much anxiety and depression in our kids. We also hope for a future where adults brought up on a diet of considering other’s perspectives may actually be able to solve the world’s problems better than those focused primarily on their own needs. 

So how do we encourage kindness in our children? Michele Borba, in her book ‘Unselfie’, addresses just this and she offers hope when she says that “Kindness is contagious”. In her research she found that when children practiced simple acts of kindness it started a ‘kindness revolution’ in their community, changing behaviour and attitudes. 

To teach children kindness the adults in their lives need to:

  1. Model it. (You knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?)
  2. Expect it and
  3. Encourage it. 

What this means is that adults need to demonstrate in their daily interactions with the children and others that they think about how the other thinks and feels. Don’t make this be something to beat yourself up about for not doing but tune in and notice the small kind things you do all the time like giving your upset child a hug. We do this on a daily basis in simple ways: 

  • Consider how your child feels and describe that feeling to them. Sometimes we worry about doing this if, for instance, our child is showing signs of anxiety. We think that talking about it will make it worse. In fact research shows that when we talk about the feelings it gives the child permission to express themselves which actually allows the feeling to dissipate, it lets them know the emotions are normal and it shows that we are not afraid of challenging emotions. This means that kids grow up with more familiarity with emotions and a greater level of tolerance for uncomfortable feelings which makes it less likely that they will seek to numb or distract from those feelings in adulthood. If, rather than having knee-jerk reactions to challenging behaviour, we consider what feeling prompted it we are not only likely to be more effective in guiding our child to more appropriate behaviours but we are also teaching them to take a more nuanced perspective of other people’s behaviours towards them.
  • Expect kindness of them in their interactions with others. Reiterate your values-“In this family we believe that all people deserve to be treated with respect. That means we don’t use unkind words.”
  • Invite their views and opinions to show that they have valid contributions to make, and that there are different ways of looking at things.
  • Small acts of thoughtfulness and care within the family and outside. Just stopping to talk to people on the street or in shops are the kind of connections that build community as well as acts of care such as helping someone with their shopping or with a lift somewhere. Talking to a homeless person rather than just walking past them teaches a child that they are not invisible but are people with feelings and stories too.
  • Prioritise kindness over achievements. Don’t only focus on your child’s achievements, the result of the football match or the maths test, but also on acts of generosity and caring. When you see examples of sticking up for a friend or sharing with a sibling or asking a grandparent about their day comment on these.
  • Notice kindness in the world and comment on it. Explain how a particular act affected the recipient. “Did you see how the man in the queue let the woman with the crying baby go in front of him? I think he could see that her need was greater than his. That was kind. I’ll bet that lady was happy to be able to get her shopping finished quickly.”
  • Build your child’s kindness muscles by creating rituals around acts of kindness. Maybe start a kindness jar where a token is inserted by the recipient of an act of kindness. Eg “Sam helped me make my bed when I was a in a rush this morning.”


Let’s make kindness more contagious than Covid-19!

Posted in: Kindness , Modelling





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