My eldest son recently had a talk on bullying at school, and it got me to thinking how important it is as parents to encourage our children to be kind. In an age where cyber bulling and feelings of social isolation amongst young people seem to be on the increase, finding ways to teach our children to have empathy with other living beings should surely be our number one priority. As Roald Dahl once said, ‘I think kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. To be kind, it covers everything. If you’re kind, that’s it’.
But how do we help children to be kinder? Are some people just born with that kindly disposition, and others not? Or is kindness something we learn along the way? It’s that old nature/nuture debate I remember vaguely from my years studying Psychology, and the truth is, I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that when I look into the faces of my young children I see them visibly shrink at the idea of ever being mean or deliberately trying to hurt someone else’s feelings. And the idea as parents that our children could one day be bullied – or perhaps even worse, become a bully themselves – is the stuff of parental nightmares. So how do we keep our children kind?
1. Lead by Example
Children instinctively look to their parents for cues, and as role models, so it’s only natural that they will learn to mirror our behaviour when it comes to the way we treat other living beings. We all have good days, bad days and days when we could have been better people, but letting our kids see us behave nicely towards others will go a long way towards instilling kindness as the norm. When I was growing up I recall my parents being consistently well mannered and considerate towards other people, and that kindness extended to animals, aswell. I remember once watching my father spend all afternoon untangling a sheep who had got stuck in the rocks in front of my Nana’s house before the tide came in and trapped it. Not so long ago I watched him stop some tourists who were walking by, to tell them they might be better taking a different route to get a nicer view of the coast. These small gestures had nothing to do with ‘random acts of kindness’, they were just a part of normal life – and most often it’s the way we behave when no one’s watching that will let our children – however old they may be – learn how to live their lives.
There’s no doubt that helping, or volunteering in some manner, is a way of being kind, and whether it’s assisting with a local litter pick, bag packing for your school’s parent council, or visiting an elderly relative, teaching your children to give up time to benefit others is a great way of learning to be kind. And the bonus is that all these things make the giver feel good about themselves too – being kind really is a win-win scenario for us all.
Reading is a fantastic way to promote empathy, and there can be few leisure activities that foster the ability to understand the feelings of another in the way that books can. Through reading, we can literally put ourselves into someone else’s shoes and see the world from their perspective, and reading about people from different backgrounds, cultures and walks of life are vital in ensuring that children grow up with the empathy for other beings from which human kindness flows. This doesn’t just apply to children, of course, and adults can benefit just as much from broadening their horizons on the reading front. Reading both to ourselves, and to our children, helps us identify with the feelings of other people – an understanding lacking when we resort to unkind acts.
4. Love Animals
Kindness and respect towards animals are some of the things I value most in other people, and I’ve always found that children who behave nicely towards animals tend to grow up as kind, decent and compassionate human beings. Having a pet is a wonderful experience for children, and does a lot to educate them on caring for other beings – as well as teaching that sometimes the needs of others might have to come before our own. If a pet isn’t the right thing for your family (and it’s a big responsibility), there are still plenty of ways to enjoy nature – putting out feed for the birds in your garden, making a home for a hedgehog or visiting an open day at a local farm to name just a few. Again, it all comes back to leading by example – if your children see you being kind and respectful, the chances are very likely that they will tend to follow suit.
There isn’t really anything better than having a talk (and a cuddle), with your kids when they feel upset or worried, and for us, after school snack time provides a great opportunity to discuss anything that has come up during the day or that might be playing on their minds. When my son told me what he’d learned about how bullying affects people, we had a long chat about kindness and about how we would feel if other people were unkind to us. We resolved that we must always try to be nice and agreed with my youngest son’s assertion that ‘when people are really really nice they get rings (halos) around their heads’. As far as my kids were concerned, being nice is normal and being kind is cool.
Helping children to be kind? I think perhaps the lesson comes from them.
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Effective parenting is a bit like writing – show, don’t tell. 🙂
Very true, Mary 🙂