Five ways to teach kindness to kids

10/27/2016 02:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Parents say that they care a great deal about raising kind children, but kids are not so sure if we really mean it.

A strong majority (73 percent) of parents surveyed said that they think it is more important that their children be kind than academically successful, according to a survey by the Children's Television Workshop, the folks who bring you Sesame Street.

But a Harvard University study found that 80 percent of young people believe their parents are more concerned with achievement than caring. Youth were three times more likely to agree than disagree with this statement: "My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I'm a caring community member in class and school." Kids in the study said that they heard much more from their parents about academics than about kindness.

I don't think this necessarily paints parents as hypocrites. We're committed, by choice and by instinct, to make sure they have full bellies and a place to come in out of the cold. We realize that some day, we won't be around anymore to provide those things. When our kids become adults, they will need to make their own way in the world - and that's much easier to do with an impressive academic background.

"No videogames until you've finished your geometry homework," is another way of saying: "I need to make sure you'll be successful enough to survive without me!"

That understandable anxiety needs to be moderated, however, with a broader view of what success really is. Research shows that kindness is the path to happiness. Any faith or wisdom tradition will tell you that, and so will science. Sonja Lyubomirsky, of the University of California, Riverside, researches happiness and consistently finds that performing acts of kindness boosts happiness. She did one study with 9- to 11-year-olds who were asked to do small acts of kindness over several weeks. The kids not only grew happier; they also became more popular with their peers.

So if we really want "what's best" for our kids, we should want them to be kind. That will make them happy in a way that a big house or luxury car never can.

There is a lot of information out there about teaching children about kindness and empathy. Some of it is a lot of fun, like this Sesame Street video.

I cannot help but think, though, that kindness is best taught by example. Are your children more likely to see you shoveling snow for a neighbor with a bad back - or zinging someone on Facebook for disagreeing with your politics? Children may or may not listen to what we say, but they commit just about everything we do to memory - for better or worse. The best thing that we can do for our children is to be our best selves. This doesn't mean turning your life inside out - it means paying attention to little opportunities to treat other people with care and respect.

Here are five suggestions to get you started:

  1. Tip and talk about it. Make a habit of tipping wait staff 20 percent (or more). Talk with your child about how servers are often are not paid enough to live well. Make a math lesson of figuring out the tip. Model saying please and thank-you, to teach that people in service positions are people - not robots.

  • Have someone who deserves appreciation over to dinner - a school crossing guard, a soccer coach, or so on. Have your child help in meal preparation and make a thank you card.
  • Have a letter-writing/email-sending/card-making night where everyone in the family sends warm wishes to an elderly or sick relative - or strangers who live in a nursing facility in your town.
  • Talk about what makes people tick. When someone cuts you off in traffic or inflicts some other irritating behavior on you, breathe deeply. When it is over, ask your child what might have been going on. Was the person in a bad mood because their boss yelled at them? Were they distracted because they were thinking about a sick friend? That - no offense to Murray the muppet - is a great way to teach empathy. Also talk about how the person could have handled the situation better, to teach that it is possible to be kind, even when you are in a bad mood.
  • Show kindness to animals too - by cutting up plastic six-pack rings that can ensnarl birds, properly disposing of antifreeze so no animal will lick it up, and so on. These are teaching moments for your kids that illustrate how many small ways we can choose kindness everyday.
  • Yes, I said five - this is a bonus. My last blog post was all about drives that schools or other groups can hold to help needy people while educating participants about what it is like to live in poverty.
  • Obviously this is not an exhaustive list, just a few ideas to get you going. I'd love to hear what you and your family decide to do - and I'd love to hear how good it feels.