Raising Kinder Kids in a Crueler World

by | Jan 10, 2011 | Empathy and Kindness

Proven tips to nurture compassion children and reduce peer cruelty

Last fall I was on the East Coast helping a small school district implement a character education program. My first meeting was with a district administrator to assess the students’ needs, and the discussion has haunted me ever since.

I began by inquiring about the district’s high school, but each student issue I addressed-drug use, attendance, gangs, test scores, school violence, racial tensions, and drinking–didn’t appear to be problems.

Although the high school was relatively small (about five hundred students), most other high schools had at least one of those issues as a concern, so I continued by asking about the students’ emotional needs. Again, the administrator shook his head, saying students were pretty typical of today’s high school kids.

Rather amazed that the school was so problem-free, I asked a final question:

“Have there been any student suicides lately?” The administrator’s answer stunned me:

“No more than most high schools these days,” he replied. “We’ve had just about one a year for the past few years.”

I stared in disbelief: that was an incredibly high rate for any school, but especially for a smaller school.  What could possibly be causing so many kids to end their lives? “Are bullying and cliques a problem?” I asked.

“No problem,” he said. “Though the principal did tell me a parent has been complaining about her son always being picked on. But I don’t think it’s any big deal.”

I pursued it anyway:  “How does she say he’s picked on?”

During the next minutes I listened aghast as the school official told me the mother’s concerns. Apparently a few of the other male students had been taunting the fifteen-year-old for several weeks by calling him some pretty vicious names.  The mother reported the incidents to the teachers, but though nothing was done. Then, last week the boys took a lawn mower to the hill behind the school and cut the grass to spell out “fag” in huge letters to publicly humiliate him.

“Now the mother said her son won’t go to school,” the administrator said, shaking his head. “You know, boys will be boys. That mother just has to loosen her strings and let her kid grow up.”

I was appalled. How could such obvious harassment be so accepted, and how could one child’s emotional distress be so denied?

Has meanness become so commonplace that we just ignore it as a fact of life?

Are we just assuming all kids will be cruel or go through some mean phase they’ll grow out of?

Or are we just throwing in the towel and figuring we can’t do anything about the spread of kid cruelty?

Come on folks! This is cold-blooded, peer cruelty and children’s lives were talking about!

Alarming Rise in Childhood Cruelty

Our children are born with the capacity to be kind and empathetic but unless we nurture it those glorious traits will lie dormant. Intentional parenting for kindness is key! Remember, cruelty, bullying and violent behaviors are learned. So too are kindness, respect, tolerance, peacefulness and empathy. And we have work to do!

The facts about the rise of children’s cruelty are alarming. Although unkindness may not result in visible bruises, studies show it can leave lasting emotional scars and tear away the fabric of moral growth. If we can learn anything from these troubling reports, it is just how destructive cruelty is and will continue to be until we commit to fervently applying the best-known cures for halting it: empathy and kindness.

Nurturing the essential virtue of kindness may well be the best way to protect our kids from experiencing the writhing pain of peer harassment as well as improving their chances of living in a kinder and more moral world.

We haven’t a moment to lose. Roll up your sleeves and let’s get started.

Our first step: Help kids understand what kindness is (and please don’t assume all kids do–especially in today’s world when cruelty and bullying are so openly flaunted).

Four Ways to Nurture Children’s Kindness

Just how much influence do we have in nurturing kindness in kids? Here’s the latest verdict from researchers:

Those parents who are kind and who have taught their children to be kind will most likely have kind children.

When children understand that kindness can make a difference, they will be more likely to incorporate that behavior in their own lives.

The best place to start is not with them– but with us. If we really want our kids to be caring, we need to make the virtue a priority in our own lives and then reinforce it in our children. The four strategies that follow are ones that experts agree are some of the most effective ways to begin to help kids understand kindness.

1. Consciously model kindness

Your child learns a great deal about morality simply by your behavior. That’s why it’s so important to model what you want your child to copy. If you want your child to be kind whenever you are together, consciously demonstrate kind behavior. We tend to do kind behaviors so naturally that our children may miss them, so deliberately tune them up.

There are so many daily opportunities: watching your friend’s child, phoning a friend who is down, picking up trash, soothing a child, giving directions, asking someone how she is, baking cookies for your family. After performing the kindness, be sure to tell your child how good it made you feel!

By seeing kindness in through your daily words and deeds and hearing you emphasize how being kind makes you feel good, your child will be much more likely to follow your example. The old saying, Children learn what they live, has a lot of truth to it.

2. Expect and then demand kindness

Spell out loudly and clearly your expectation that others must be treated kindly. It sets a standard for your child’s expected conduct and also lets her know in no uncertain terms what you value.

Nancy Eisenberg, author of The Caring Child,found that parents who express their views about hurtful, unkind behavior and then explain why they feel that way tend to have kids who adopt those views.

So state your belief to children again and again and again: “Unkindness is wrong, it’s hurtful, and it will not be tolerated!”

3. Teach the meaning of kindness

Parkland School District

One of the most important steps in teaching kindness is making sure kids know what kindness means, and it’s a step too often overlooked. So take time to define the virtue.

You might say, “Kindness means you are concerned about other people. Kind people think about another person’s feelings and just their own, they help someone who is in need, and they are kind even when others are not. Kind people never expect anything in return. They just treat other people kindly because they want to help make someone’s life better. Kindness makes the world a nicer place, because it makes people happier. And it’s a virtue I want you to always use.”

Consider making and hanging up poster that lists or depicts kind deeds your family can do for one another. It will serve as a constant reminder of simple ways to make the world a little better.

4. Show what kindness looks like

You can do this activity with your child any time you are together in a place filled with people: a store, the airport, a mall, or the school grounds. Tell her that the object is to look for people who show kindness to others. She is to watch to see what the kind person did to show someone he was concerned or that he cared, and then to observe the recipient of the kindness. Many teachers assign students to do a “kindness watch” sometime during the day, then ask them to share their observations with the rest of the class. The teachers tell me that doing the activity always increases their students’ kindly behaviors because they have the chance to really see what kind people do and say and the effect the virtue has on others.

These are just four proven strategies to get you started. I’ll keep sharing more. Remember your parenting goal here is to help your child adopt that virtue from the inside out so a one-time family chat about being kind isn’t going to cut it. Look for ongoing opportunities to help your child not only understand what kindness is, that you value and expect it.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba