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My daughter recently won an award for being kind and caring
to others at school. Like any parent in
such a situation, tears rolled down my face when her name was called to accept
the award — an award she had no idea was coming. She smiled from ear-to-ear for the remainder
of that day. It feels good to be
recognized for kindness.
As happy and proud as I felt to see her run up there in
front of the entire 2nd grade, I wasn’t the least bit surprised. Kind is the first word that comes to mind when
people who know her think about her. She’s smart, artistic, clever, considerate, determined and every other
positive adjective you can imagine.
We are big on kindness and empathy in this house. We don’t worry about tons of rules and small
mistakes, but we do believe in being kind and understanding toward others (even
if others don’t reciprocate). Above all,
we believe in lifting each other up and helping each other out along the
way. We nurture these beliefs every
single day (even on the hard ones).
A running debate in the field of psychology centers on
whether or not altruism is innate. Are
some kids just born into this world with kindness and altruism in their
souls? In fact, a 2006 study involving 18-month-old
toddlers indicated that this might be the case — until a pair of Stanford psychologists
decided to take a closer look at altruistic behaviors in young children.
Connection is important. When adults cultivate relationships with children (even brief ones) and build trust with them, this triggers kindness in children.
Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a graduate student at Stanford,
and Carol Dweck, professor of
psychology at Stanford, took the study one step further. The study, published in the November issue of
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that the practice of
altruism isn’t just innate; it’s also influenced by environmental factors. As it turns out, reciprocal interactions
trigger kindness in young children.
Long story short? If
you want nice kids, you have to teach them to be nice by supporting their
emotional needs and practicing unconditional love.
During the study, the toddlers that engaged in reciprocal
(back-and-forth) play with adults were three times more likely to help the
adult later on than the toddlers who engaged in parallel play with adults. Connection is important. When adults cultivate relationships with
children (even brief ones) and build trust with them, this triggers kindness in
“I think the findings will stir up controversy, but in a
good way,” Dweck said in a press release. “People often call something 'innate' because
they don't understand the kinds of subtle experiences that can make something,
like altruism, flourish. Rodolfo has discovered a really subtle experience that
has a powerful influence.”
How can parents cultivate kindness and altruism in the
home? They can start with these easy
1. Model it
Parents often tell children to be kind, use kind words and
help others. But children tend to learn
by looking for social cues around them, particularly during the toddler
Be kind in your actions and words. Exercise patience. Help others, both within the family and in
the community. Lay a foundation of
positive interactions in your home instead of focusing on correcting the
If anything, it’s time for parents to slow down and make room for relationship-building.
2. Make time for play
Play is the language of children. It is how they build relationships, learn
about the world around them and express emotion. And yet, many kids lack sufficient time for
As important as it is to make time for play, it is equally
important to engage in play with your
children. Always accept an invitation to
play — it’s your child’s way of telling you that your relationship matters.
3. Build trust
The piece of this study that jumps off the page is that
children are more likely to demonstrate kind and altruistic behavior when they
experience trusting relationships. So
often parenting feels like a never-ending to-do list for many. No matter the age or stage, there is always
something that needs doing.
If anything, it’s time for parents to slow down and make
room for relationship-building. Kids
need time with parents and siblings to play together, be there for one another and enjoy the small moments that life has to offer.