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Want Nice Kids? Raise Them That Way

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.

But, above all, she is kind. It’s who she is.

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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 children.

“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 steps:

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 years.

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 negative.

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 unstructured play.

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.

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Put in the time to build trusting relationships with your children and nurture trusting relationships between siblings. It can only help them as they grow.

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Image via Twenty20/rasteve

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