Helping Kids Catch Kindness

November 13, 2021

There are three ways to ultimate success: The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” 

~Mr. Rogers

We have spent nearly three years trying our hardest to stay safe and not get infected.  We have put on our masks and sanitized every inch to be sure that we are not catching anything or spreading anything. Yet, there is one thing that we should hope to catch and need to work to spread as we help children discover a truly good infection - kindness!

Yes, kindness does matter! And what’s more, research tells us that kindness is truly good for us. When you perform an act of kindness, you are not only connecting with someone who welcomes this kindness, but you are also lifting yourself and your own happiness. Kindness, in fact, makes us happy. It can fill us with a sense of pride and allow us to feel better about ourselves and even about our world. This is our brain chemistry telling us “you did good, keep it up,” releasing feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine into our systems elevating our mood, relieving stress, helping with anxiety, and even perhaps physical pain. With all that we have experienced in this overwhelming time, it is good to know that there is a wonderful antidote - helping others and sharing our time and our heart. As Dr. Traci Baxley pointed out in a recent New York Times interview, for children who have experienced so much and have had difficulty adjusting back into school and social situations, “Just seeing compassion and kindness in action releases chemicals in the brain that helps them calm down.... It slows the heart rate and releases serotonin that counters symptoms of depression.” and that we have “ obligation to teach our children to stand up and be allies for groups that are marginalized and silenced.”But to really have a lasting effect, we need to practice kindness all the time. We need to spread kindness. In so doing we are helping to pass on a really good kind of contagion as science has found that kindness is infectious! Witnessing “nice” and “helpful” acts, especially when we are young, inspires us to want to do the same.

Helping children learn to be kind, to be a friend, to share, to care for others, and to be empathetic to others’ experiences is just as important as any academic skills we teach them. Encouraging them to make kindness, and practicing acts of kindness a part of their everyday lives is something that we can start at the beginning. We know that children are watching and absorbing all that surrounds them - what they observe they will mimic. To that end, it is our job to put a spotlight on acts of kindness for them. If we truly want to see a culture of kindness - a world where kindness is a norm, then we need to instill caring, empathy, and prosocial behaviors in children as much as we work to develop literacy and math skills. On Kindness Day and every day, let’s think about 5 ways to help children develop a kindness reflex - one that they can always have at the ready and inspire others to replicate -as they spread the kindness bug.

  • Model Kindness.  Children, as we have said, are watching and learning from what we do. Their brains from their earliest days are developing rapidly and making decisions as to what behaviors they will take on.  If we are consistently demonstrating in even the smallest acts that we care, that we can share our hearts, that we can be helpful and empathetic, not just on World Kindness Day, but as a part of our being, children will pick this up and want to do the same. When they are repeatedly witness to our efforts to reach out to others, to share our time and ourselves (even with those we do not know or who may not return these acts), to be comforting of others and make others smile, to go out of our way to help someone and to make sure others feel welcome and included, then they too will develop the very same instinct. Acts of kindness never have to be grand gestures, in fact, it is in the quiet, small things where the kindness magic happens. The best way to instill a desire to help is to demonstrate that we strive to be helpful wherever and however we can and that being helpful makes us feel good.
  •  Praise Kindness.  By cheering children on when they are practicing kindness and prosocial behaviors, we are helping them to develop the important muscle of caring and empathy. We are empowering them to know that helping, caring, and thinking of others is something that they can feel proud about. Receiving affirmation for helping pick up crayons, sharing a book, letting others be the first to sit on your lap ahead of them... all encourage children to continue this practice. Allowing children to own the moment will give them a true sense of understanding they did “good.” Praising children for even the smallest acts, such as helping a friend who has fallen on the playground, letting a friend take your turn on the swings, even opening a door to let others pass gives children a sense of pride and helps kindness become a reflex. The same is true when children do not put others ahead of themselves - they need to be guided to understand that others have feelings too and that they need to listen and understand their impact on the feelings of others. Sometimes all a friend needs is a hug to know that you understand how they are feeling. Helping children to see that there are other perspectives to a situation can allow them to develop empathy and learn to think outside of their own small world.

It’s tempting to think ‘a little’ isn’t significant and that only ‘a lot’ matters...But most things that are important in life start very small and change very slowly, and they don’t come with fanfare and bright lights.” 

~Mr. Rogers

  • Shine a Light on Acts of Kindness.  Taking the moment to stop and point out when you see a small act of kindness helps children to understand what it is to be kind and what kindness looks like. Ensuring children can see acts of kindness, discussing those acts - “did you see how Kimberly helped Jeffrey find his lost mitten?” - they can then begin to understand what it is to be kind. Being witness to it, hearing about, and seeing what again, even the smallest acts look like and how it impacts others will encourage a desire to want to practice being helpful and kind and to work to make it a part of who they are. Our days are filled with opportunities to point out the good that we see - we seem to often spend a lot of energy on the “wrong,” but turning the spotlight toward all of the things that make someone’s day better allows children to understand what true kindness means and how it makes others feel when we are helpful, caring, and thoughtful while giving them the sense that they too can make a difference, no matter how small. 
  • Keep a Kindness List. Creating an ongoing list of everyday acts where children help others or do something to brighten a friend’s day lets us highlight and point children toward spreading kindness.. A Kindness List will allow children to learn to identify what acts of kindness look like and encourage them to follow along. They can go on a “Kindness Hunt” each day just to make sure that they are included on that Kindness List. Putting being kind at the center of children’s worlds will make it an easy practice for them and allow them to take ownership of not only witnessing when friends have been there for others but also look at what they have done in their day to be a good friend. Encouraging children to “look for the helpers,” as Mister Rodgers taught us, will spread and become a part of children’s everyday experience.
  • Read about Kindness. Very often, true learning happens in our quiet shared moments.  Reading together is certainly one of those moments. Books open worlds and they open conversations around BIG feelings and everyday experiences...they take children into the lives of the characters inside a book and help them to connect to others. Stories can help us point to what friendship, kindness, caring, and sharing look like and allow for conversations where we can focus on situations in our days that may be similar to what the characters in the book have been through. Reading together and talking about stories and characters allow children to connect the dots - when a storybook character hurts another character’s feelings or when Piglet and Winnie-the-Pooh try to brighten Eeyore’s day, we have wonderful opportunities to start these conversations and help children understand how to do it differently next time, how to be helpful, how to make someone feel better and how to be kind.  Our friends at Big Heart World have worked with First Book and School Library Journal to compile some inspiring books on Upstanding and Helping to enjoy and start those great conversations to spark kindness.

Finally, always remember... Be kind to you!

I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,but people will never forget how you made them feel."

~Maya Angelou


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