August 11, 2016

Generosity and kindness: The best lesson this school year

When we think about the many things we teach our children — reading, math, even manners — it can be easy to forget about the basics, like kindness and generosity. But those are skills we have to develop, even as adults.

Kindness and generosity are one of the best things children can do for their well-being. Research shows that when kids are kind, they feel good about themselves, have more friendships and get better grades.

But kindness does not always come naturally to children, although there are ways to help encourage it.

Help develop their inner compass

We are raising citizens for tomorrow. However, we are seeing a decline in the salience of virtues like kindness, generosity and compassion in the collective culture, making it even more important for parents to make teaching them a priority.

Research has found that the mentions of virtues such as kindness, generosity, charity, helpfulness, thoughtfulness, politeness, love have declined in American books over the past century. Pelin Kesebir at UW's Center for Healthy Minds and Selin Kesebir from the London Business School looked at the appearance of these virtues indicating care and concern for others in millions of American books from 1900 to 2000 and found an average decline of 55.7% in the frequency of these words' appearance. This means that for every 2 appearances of these words in 1900, there was less than 1 in 2,000.

While that might not seem like a big deal, it could be seen as an increasing trend that those concepts are less important culturally. But we know that kindness and generosity are directly linked with happiness. When we engage in daily behaviors that help us connect with something larger than ourselves, it creates a greater satisfaction with our lives and our lives have greater meaning the next day.

This is especially true for kids — when children express kindness and generosity regularly, they feel better about themselves and are happier.

Go from 'me' to 'we'

Every day there are many teachable moments that help build children's character. And as they navigate through their day, parents can help them find ways to make kindness a top priority.

One way is to put an emphasis on generosity in your family — express your gratitude by saying "thank you" regularly. Encourage kids to help out around the house so they can understand what it means to work together. Praise children when you see them engaging in a generous act, and be sure to model that yourself. It might be wishing a stranger a good day, or holding the door for someone whose arms are full.

Talk with them to identify ways they might be able to be kind at school, such as standing up for another child on the playground who isn't being treated well or sitting next to a new student at lunch. Use news and entertainment to show them social, cultural, ethnic and geographic differences, but also our common humanity to build their connection to the need for helping to reduce the suffering in our world.

During the holidays, instead of putting the focus on receiving gifts, consider ways to help others, such as volunteering their time. Encourage an intentional practice as well, such as setting aside time to practice a loving kindness meditation or saying prayers for others. It's important to nurture empathy and compassion.

And, remember to take as much pride in their displays of caring and concern about something larger than themselves as you would their academic and athletic achievements.

Walk the talk

Part of raising caring kids is helping them learn to regulate distressing emotions. Emotions like anger, jealousy, shame, guilt, resentment or other difficult feelings can be a barrier to generosity, so help them find a way to manage those difficult emotions.

Problem solve with them how to resolve conflict in a way that helps them keep focused on being a caring individual, seeing multiple perspectives and taking the other person's viewpoint into consideration while speaking up for themselves. That's no small task, and even challenging for adults to do. But trying to look at a situation from the other person's point of view can help kids develop compassion and empathy for those around them.

As parents, we can help children grow and move in the direction of their potential by bringing compassion, kindness, patience and wisdom to our interactions. In doing so, children will learn to listen to their inner-guidance, develop their own instincts and stay true to their desires. As they grow, they'll be confident in thinking for themselves, rather than being swayed by other influences.

Remind your children that every day they have an important mission in life to use the skills and knowledge to change the lives of those less fortunate than themselves. They can make a difference by choosing to do so. It all starts with kindness and generosity, which creates an environment where everyone can thrive.