We know we need to raise kind kids, but it's hard work for parents. If you feel like you're doing everything you can to teach kindness and you're not seeing results, you're not alone. We talk about the 5 reasons teaching kindness is difficult and what to do about each one. It's worth our time and effort to raise kids who demonstrate kindness, compassion and empathy because of significant long-term benefits for our families and communities.
Am I raising a bully?
It’s an honest question I’ve asked myself a few times over the last few years. That’s a hard thing for me to admit, especially because being kind and treating others well is something I genuinely strive to do all the time. I don’t always succeed, but I’m always making an effort.
So the thought of raising boys who aren’t kind seems unlikely, but I can point to a few specific events that definitely forced me to consider the possibility.
I Wish This Had Never Happened
Several years ago, things got pretty awkward with one of my closest friends. We spent a lot of time together with our kids--most days every week--and loved it! When I started to feel the tension rising between my boys and her daughter, I blew it off. After all, we spent so much time together they were almost like siblings. So I had conversations with my boys about being kind and considerate, and I assumed that would take care of it.
I will never forget the day it all came unglued.
We ended up at a park and it wasn’t long before my boys were arguing with her daughter and refusing to play together. I’d had it, and was determined to address this issue once and for all. I called all the kids (and my friend) over to the picnic table and laid out some ground rules for a healthy and productive discussion.
I’m a communication teacher, and this was most definitely a teachable moment. Never mind that it was incredibly awkward. I just pushed through.
A few minutes into the conversation, my friend looked at my boys and said, “I have a question and I want you to answer honestly. Do you want to be friends with her?”
They were quiet for a minute and then both said no. Both of them!
I NEVER expected that answer, so I had no idea how to continue the conversation. I was horrified! And speechless. Which rarely happens.
We left the park in separate cars and I yelled at my boys all the way home. I was so angry with them and I was worried about my friend and her daughter, not to mention my fear that our friendship was over.
My boys didn’t have any idea that their answer would put my friendship in jeopardy, but I was so angry that I kept reminding them, blaming them. I could've had a much more productive conversation with them if I wasn’t so focused on making sure they knew how much they hurt everyone.
From their perspective, they were just being honest. We emphasize honesty at home all the time, so why was I upset when they answered a question honestly? What do you do when honesty and kindness are in conflict?
I handled the whole thing badly, but eventually my boys and I were able to talk it through and understand each other’s perspective. They clarified that it wasn’t that they didn’t want to be friends...they were just tired of so much time together. They also were getting to the age where they wanted to play more often with boys. (And could I please find more friends with sons?) How I wish all of this had been part of the conversation at the park!
I missed my friend dearly for a while, but friendship prevailed because we were able to process it together and work our way through it. It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth it. We don’t see each other often these days just because of proximity and the ages and activities of our kids, but I’d do anything for her family and I’d call her in a heartbeat if I ever needed anything.
But Here's What I Learned
So, what did I learn from this awful experience?
Teaching my kids to be kind is really, really hard.
What was I missing? Why didn’t my effort to be kind seem to make an impact on them?
As much as we hear about kindness--in movies like Wonder, on t-shirts and signs, from celebrities and nonprofit organizations--sometimes it feels so elusive. We know we need to be kind, we know the world needs more kindness, but how in the world do we actually raise kids to be kind?
It’s not as easy as it sounds. I found 5 reasons why teaching kindness to our kids is so hard--it makes me feel a little better to know I’m not alone in this struggle. But I also know I can’t give up! I also included some tips to overcome each difficulty based on recent research and some of my own experience.
5 Reasons It's So Hard To Raise Kind Kids
1. Kindness is hard to define.
As I was researching this post, I struggled to find consistency in definitions of kindness, or at least examples of it. I wanted to clarify kindness so I could dig into how we can do a better job of teaching it, but the deeper I went the more uncertain I was.
People just aren’t sure how to explain kindness:
Scientists relate kindness to other concepts too (studies linked below):
- Compassion - but that’s really more of an action or feeling compelled to act
- Empathy - but is it affective empathy (an emotional response) or cognitive empathy (putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes)
- Emotional intelligence - but that’s really a bigger picture and considers how well we control emotions and read other people
- Niceness - but the differences here seem to focus on motivation for doing things (one is to please others and the other is rooted in benevolence)
If we don’t really know what we mean by kindness, how can we teach it to our kids?
Do This (Because Science Says So)
Define kindness for your family and focus on what matters most to you. If you can clarify your expectations for yourself and your kids, you're more likely to see results.
A 2017 study identified three different components of kindness:
- benign tolerance: being courteous or polite and accepting of others
- empathetic responsivity: understanding and responding to how other people feel, especially specific people in your life
- principled pro-action: behaving selflessly and honorably; actively seeking opportunities to show kindness
What's your priority? Decide which component of kindness matters most to you and be intentional about cultivating that in your kids. When you see actions that demonstrate kindness as your family defines it, point those out to your kids and talk about why they're important.
2. Kindness still isn’t cool.
I feel like my boys have come a long way in the last year when it comes to kindness. I know a lot of that has been our increased focus on gratitude and service, spurred largely by the creation of SALT effect. But I was still discouraged when I asked them this week why it’s not always easy for kids to be nice.
One of them said that nice kids are considered dorks and the other said that kids would rather be popular and tough than be nice. Ugh! Why??
Before I decided I was getting nowhere as a parent, I kept reading...
It’s not like this idea is unique to elementary and middle school kids. Adults buy into it as well.
Jennifer Lea Reynolds, journalist and founder of a nonprofit focused on kindness, wrote in Psychology Today that “some people think it’s a sign of weakness. There seems to be a perception that a kind person is soft and emotionally frail, while an individual who is rude and curt — even one who disparages kind efforts — more often than not is someone who is tough, socially intriguing, and even admirable.”
So if kindness isn’t always cool, what can we do to push the perception in a more positive direction?
Do This (Because Science Says So)
The Making Caring Common Project from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education suggests that we can develop empathy in our kids by empathizing with them and modeling empathy for others. Just telling your kids that kindness is cool may not do the trick, but empathizing with them will strengthen your relationship and open doors for more conversations about kindness.
You can also help your kids notice kindness in people they admire. If you know who your kids look up to, make it a point to look for ways they're being kind. My youngest son loves college and professional sports, and looks up to many of those athletes. We recently heard Dallas Lauderdale, a former Ohio State and current pro basketball player, preach a sermon entitled "Watch Your Mouth." We had a chance to meet him after church and my son was in awe. A basketball player's reminder to pay attention to how words affect other people had an impact on my son in a way I never will.
3. Kindness takes a back seat to success and achievement.
In a Harvard study, over 10,000 middle school and high school kids were asked what they valued more: achievement, happiness or caring for others. Nearly 80% chose either achievement or happiness over caring for others. Parents say having caring children is more important than high-achieving children, but there’s a disconnect between what parents say and what our kids hear. Teens 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.”
Think about the amount of time we spend on homework and activities like sports or music lessons. Why? To teach kids a strong work ethic so they can achieve success.
Now compare that to the amount of time we spend focused on kindness or gratitude or service. How many hours are set aside each week to teach kids how to care about other people and develop emotional intelligence? If we’re honest, there’s really no comparison.
In a culture that doesn’t leave room to prioritize kindness, how can we push back and do it differently with our own kids?
Do This (Because Science Says So)
If we really want the best for our kids, and if we want to raise kids who care and make a positive contribution in the world, we need to find a way to communicate that. Doing random acts of kindness is a great way--and can be a small step--toward a bigger focus on kindness, compassion and empathy.
This video from Random Acts of Kindness shows the scientific benefits of kindness. Watch this now and watch it often to keep these important long-term benefits front of mind. Yes, we need to raise kids who are motivated and hard-working, but those goals can't push out other goals like kindness and gratitude and service.
4. Kindness isn’t practiced or modeled consistently by adults.
We’ve heard it a million times: actions speak louder than words. We can tell our kids to treat others with kindness, but they’re paying more attention to what we actually do. Some things to consider:
- How do you treat people in public when your kids are with you? Think about how you respond to other drivers, cashiers, or servers.
- How do you talk about another kid’s meltdown in a store or behavior in a restaurant?
- Are you critical of people on TV or the radio--what they’re wearing or doing or saying?
- Do you talk negatively about yourself or family or friends? Or about teachers and coaches?
Kids are also surrounded by other influences that may not value compassion or empathy. We know there’s plenty of negativity and not a lot of kindness in politics, and social media brings it all closer to home. TV shows, movies and video games often have characters who are anything but kind. Kids also pay attention to the behavior of professional athletes, movie and tv stars, and musicians. We can't possibly monitor it all.
And here’s something that surprised me: a recent study found that some of us may be “genetically hardwired” to be more empathetic and kind. We talked about this same idea when it comes to gratitude in a previous post--some people are naturally more grateful than others.
If we struggle to be kind to everyone and our kids are influenced by some people who don’t strive for kindness, how can we be better models?
Do This (Because Science Says So)
One of my favorite books is How Full Is Your Bucket? by Don Clifton and Tom Rath. If those names sound familiar, it's because Don Clifton is "the father of strengths-based psychology and the grandfather of positive psychology" according to the American Psychological Association. I've gifted the book to college graduates and recommended it to many friends and colleagues.
Reading that book always reminds me just how important kindness is, and it motivates me to be more intentional about it. And when I'm more intentional, I can be confident that my kids will notice it, even if they never mention it. For several years, we had small buckets on our kitchen table to drop notes in for other members of our family. It's something I just might start doing again because it really did make a difference in how we treated each other.
5. Kindness requires us to slow down and notice people.
So many of us live in survival mode--the rat race, the hamster wheel (what’s up with the rodents?)--and it’s all we can do to keep up with everything on our calendar. But we miss important stuff when we’re focused on the busyness: really listening to a problem our son or daughter is having at school; smiling and leaving a nice tip at the coffee shop; complimenting a coworker on a new idea or cute outfit; holding the door open for someone who isn’t moving very quickly; and so on.
Being kind also means that we notice and care about how people feel. It takes time and effort to see the world from someone else’s perspective, and it’s especially difficult for kids while they’re still growing and developing. Sometimes our kids don’t realize how their words or actions make someone else feel--they don’t intend to be unkind, but that’s not clear to the person on the receiving end.
When I confronted one of my boys about how he was treating another boy at school--I found out about it from another mom (another awful moment)--I was genuinely surprised by his response. Yes, he knew that he wasn’t being as nice as he should be, but this comment is what surprised me: “If he’s upset or is getting his feelings hurt, why doesn’t he stand up for himself? That’s what I always do.”
Huh. This was a perspective I hadn’t considered.
My son couldn't imagine why another kid wouldn’t fight back--with words in this instance. That opened the door for a fruitful conversation about how and why people respond differently. I shared that when I was in elementary school, I would never have stood up to people if they were mean to me. I do think I’ve seen a shift in his behavior since that conversation, and he’s more likely now to consider someone else’s perspective.
But if we’re almost always rushing and primarily focused on ourselves, how can we expect our kids to notice the needs of people around them?
Do This (Because Science Says So)
We have to stop. We're never going to figure out how to slow down and notice other people if we don't stop first. Mary and I know firsthand that this is the only way to really ditch survival mode and make room for the things that make the biggest difference in the lives of our families.
If you're ready to do that, we are here to help! Here's our worksheet 5 Days to a Better Balance. If you make 5 small changes - 1 each day - we guarantee you'll notice a difference. It won't take a lot of time, but the impact is huge and the scientific benefits are very real. Try it and let us know how it changed you!