Reading the newspaper and watching TV can lead one to despair that the world is a harsh, dangerous place filled with mean people. Sociologists note that general concern about poverty, and the mistreatment or misfortune of others, is on a slight decline. And, it seems to me, in recent years harsher attitudes in political and even some religious realms have a diminished emphasis on "loving thy neighbor as thyself."
Children are surrounded by all of this as well. Television, movies, and video games expose children to unprecedented levels of aggression, violence, and cruelty towards people and animals. In sitcoms and cartoons, characters are often disrespectful, mean, or simply indifferent to others.
At a dinner party tonight I brought the subject up. A friend noted, "People are shocked now when you are nice. It used to be assumed that you were kind and respectful to everyone. Now, when I do something nice the person will act like I might have an ulterior motive."
When and how did it become less important to be a kind, compassionate, and non-judgmental person? Looking back, I realize what a natural emphasis my parents put on kindness and compassion towards people and animals. I hope I am not being too idealistic when I say that I expect the same from my children. And, I have had the pleasure of meeting many parents concerned with this issue.
So, I asked myself, how do we raise kind and compassionate children surrounded by the aforementioned social influences?
Research finds two primary keys that can help your child develop into a kind person. The first is modeling kind and compassionate acts and attitudes toward others. The second is treating your child with kindness, gentleness and patience. This kind of nurturing is the perfect role model for kindness.
Modeling kindness, researchers find, doesn't have to involve grand acts. Kids pay more attention to what their parents do than to what they say. Helping a stray animal to the animal shelter, giving a few dollars and a kind word to a homeless person, or bringing in your neighbors' trash can for them, can speak volumes. On the other hand, when you make judgmental or unkind comments, or treat animals or people with rudeness or disrespect, you are sending the message that it is acceptable to treat others in this way.
Talking about kindness is important. Parents who let their children know that they think it is essential that their children are nice typically see more of these behaviors in their children than do parents who do not openly discuss these matters. When you see your child doing something kind praise them highly. Research shows that adults and children feel much better about themselves when they do kind acts.
Almost all children are thoughtless and aggressive at times. When you catch your child doing something unkind let them know right away that you do not want them acting in that way. But, do not criticize them as people, such as saying, "You are not nice." Instead, say "What you did is not nice." Explain to them why you disapprove. For example, "Susie is crying because you hit her. Hitting hurts. That is not a nice thing to do." Or, "I heard you and your friend making unkind comments about your classmate. It isn't nice to talk about others like that. What you were saying would really hurt her feelings."
There has been a lot of emphasis in recent press about parents not holding children responsible for their actions, instead scapegoating other children or parents, the situation, and even their teachers. The problem with this is that children are not learning to be responsible for their actions. Furthermore, not holding children responsible for what they have done sends the message that it is not OK to make mistakes, (otherwise, mommy or daddy wouldn't ignore my naughty behavior).
Your children will be more conscientious and caring people if you help them take responsibility for what they do, understand why they shouldn't do it, and help them try and make right by their mistakes.
There are other things you can do. Read books where the message promotes compassionate behavior. Make sure that the shows and games your children are exposed to do not glamorize aggression or people who "get ahead" at the expense of others. Educate your children about famous altruists and why you admire them.
There are many good people in the world, but we can't take kindness for granted. In our consumerist and busy society at times it seems that being a "kind person" is no longer emphasized. Yet, if we all really stopped to think about it, there probably isn't a bigger contribution that we can make to the world than raising kind children. And, of course, being kind ourselves.
n Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.