Contrary to the “every person for themselves” belief, humans have survived precisely because of our social behaviour. Our ancestors’ ability to work together – to hunt, to look after our young ones – ensured their survival. Having strong prosocial skills meant that you were more likely to survive and less likely to be left behind or left to fend for yourself. In this previous blog post, I wrote about how those skills still serve us now; for example, how we pull together and help each other in hard times.

The research backs up this idea that “we are all in this together.” Children as young as three months have been shown to have a preference for helping behaviours over unhelpful behaviours. Dr. Karen Wynn and her team from The Infant Cognition Centre, otherwise known as The Baby Lab, at the University of Yale ran a series of studies looking at whether babies recognize prosocial behaviour. In one study, 5 and 9 month old babies were shown a scene with puppets. In the scene, a puppet was trying to get a colourful rattle out of a box. The babies are shown two variations of this scene – in one variation, another puppet comes along who helps the original puppet open the box and take out the rattle. In the other variation, the puppet that comes along sits on the box, making it impossible for the original puppet to open the box. After watching both variations, when presented with both the helping and non-helping puppets, the babies showed a preference for the helping puppet by gazing longer at and reaching for the helpful puppet.

Research out of Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl’s Social & Emotional Learning Lab (the SEL Lab) at the University of BC found that children ages 9 to 11 who are asked to perform three acts of kindness per week for four weeks, showed increases in happiness and how well-liked they were by peers. This is important as preteens who are well-liked also demonstrate more inclusive behaviour. Another study from the SEL Lab looked at the benefits of volunteering. Grade 10 students who volunteered one hour a week for 10 weeks with elementary school children, lowered their cardiovascular risk as compared to the control group.

Research is showing that prosocial behaviours, including kindness, are more ingrained in us than previously thought. This doesn’t necessarily  always make kindness the “go to” behaviour though. Kind isn’t always easy and sometimes, in the short-term at least, the power we feel with anger and revenge can be sweet. So how do we encourage kindness in our children? You are probably already doing most, if not all, of the ideas listed below. The key is being intentional and knowing why we are doing what we are doing when we are doing it!

  1. Model kindness – Our children learn an incredible amount by watching how we treat others. Do you show kindness and understanding in your interactions with your friends?  Do you tell your child to stay away from the student in their class who is having difficulty on the playground and leave it at that, or do you talk about how some children have a harder time learning how to get along with others?
  2. Talk about being kind – What does it mean to be kind? What does it look like and sound like? Notice and name when your children are being kind (“I saw you give the red crayon to Lily when she asked for it even though you were using it.”) Don’t, however, reward them for their kindness. External rewards have been shown to lessen internal motivation.
  3. Make it a family value – “We treat other people with kindness in our family.” Let your children know that kindness is important.
  4. Create an Acts of Kindness Jar – One way to notice and name kindness is by tracking acts of kindness. You can track them by journalling, talking about them at the dinner table, creating an Acts of Kindness Jar or any other way you can think of. Track both kind acts that they (and you) have received and those acts that they (and you) have done for others.
  5. Read stories with kindness themes – Books such as “Plant a Kiss” by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and “Boo Hoo Bird” by Jeremey Tankard are great for younger children. “Wonder” by R. J. Palacio and “Blubber” by Judy Blume are two for older children. Heart-Mind Online has book lists that you  can find here, for the younger ones, and here, for older children.

The Dalai Lama has said, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” Not always easy, but possible. Hopefully you have a little more information to help your child(red) choose kind.