Is kindness something that is taught, or is it inherent? It's a question that many parents wonder. The truth is, kindness is a little bit of both – nature and nurture – and they work together.
A hormone in the brain, oxytocin, can impact kindness. Oxytocin levels are linked to attachment, empathy, bonding behaviors, romantic love, trust and generosity. However, as adults, we also play a significant role in raising kind kids.
"The way and the environment in which kids are raised plays a key role in kindness," says Laura Lamminen, Ph.D., ABPP, a board certified pediatric psychologist with Children's Health℠ and Assistant Professor at UT Southwestern. "When parents are affectionate towards their children – when they soothe them when they're feeling down, when they provide interpersonal support, love and compassion, and when they model prosocial behaviors – kids, in turn, develop those skills and share them with others."
What are the benefits of kindness?
Kindness is an aspirational, moral and human quality. But research shows it also has many benefits, including a greater sense of belonging and improved self-esteem.
"Raising kind kids has many benefits, both physical and mental," explains Dr. Lamminen. "Kindness is good for the heart; it builds self-confidence and connections and increases happiness."
On average, kind kids can experience:
- Increased energy levels
- Improved self-esteem
- Increased optimism and happiness
- Acceptance among peers
In addition to the many health benefits of being kind, kindness can help decrease:
- Blood pressure
How to raise kind kids
One of the best ways to teach kindness is to model that behavior. Doing something for someone in need – sending a postcard to someone to just say hello or bringing in a neighbor's trash cans – are simple deeds that a child will notice. "Kindness is contagious. When kids see someone being kind, they want to pay it forward," says Dr. Lamminen.
Children who are kind to others share several common characteristics, including attributes of:
- Generosity – including a willingness to give of one's time or gifts
- Thoughtfulness – thinking about others and being thoughtful
- Positive social behavior – forging connections with people through helping, sharing, volunteering and donating
- Empathy – understanding and recognizing how people feel
It's never too early to instill these healthy, kind characteristics in children. "Children learn as they go and rely on instincts and observations to navigate their environment," says Dr. Lamminen. "Kids want to make people happy, and parents can reinforce those feelings." For instance, a 2-year-old who doesn't want to share a toy can be guided by a parent by saying, "We share toys with others, and it makes play more fun."
It's also never too late to teach kindness. Although the brain fully develops by 24 to 26 years of age, kindness can still be developed and should be practiced throughout life.
Here are five tips for raising kind kids to help parents get started.
1. Forge a connection with your child
From the beginning, work to form a bond and attach with your child. This can be simple gestures like snuggling with your child and giving kisses – making time to connect. Also, recognize your child's needs and validate their feelings.
2. Help your child develop prosocial behaviors
Accepting, helpful and cooperative behaviors improve a child's social interaction, relationship and acceptance among his or her peers. Help your child balance their own needs with the needs of others and recognize their positive efforts by saying, "You were kind and helpful to your friend."
3. Engage in labeled praise
Parents can use labeled praise, which is a specific type of praise, to tell your child exactly what you are pleased about. Instead of saying, "I'm proud of you," say, "I'm proud that you helped your friend find his book. It was nice of you to take the time to help out."
4. Model positive, kind behaviors
As a parent, it's not only important what you say, but also what you do. You're a role model for your child so let them catch you doing something good for someone else – without any benefit to you. Let your child help you with a good deed or join you as you volunteer your time.
5. Encourage connections with others
Help your child to forge a connection with others. Encourage your child to help a teacher or ask an elder how they're doing or asking them to share their wisdom and life experiences. Their wisdom can also help shape who we become. There are many opportunities for parents and kids to get involved in community service opportunities. Volunteering with your child can help build the foundation for kindness, respect, understanding and patience. Local nonprofits often offer teens who are old enough a chance to volunteer with a group of their peers. These are great opportunities for teens to connect with like-minded people close to their age.
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