Is your teenager grouchy? Does your little one have a cold? Research shows that kindness is a sure route to greater happiness and, in some cases, improved health.
Here are five ways to raise kinder kids:
- Model kindness yourself. Kindness can be contagious: when we see someone else perform an act of kindness, we are more likely to feel an impulse to help out, too. Research suggests that altruistic children have at least one parent (usually of the same sex) who deliberately communicates altruistic values to their kids. Similarly, when preschoolers have nurturing caregivers who deliberately model helping others, they tend to be more helpful and verbally sympathetic to other children when they hurt themselves. There are many ways to model altruism for your kids, as the Half Full reader shows:
“We have twin 4 year olds. Girls. We make a lot of art for people. Even just a drawing. We also make cookies or other baked goods for people. We’re in the process of planning to do a bake-a-thon for a bake sale for Haiti and my girls are very excited for that. Right now it’s little things but I hope to get them actually volunteering and holding lemonade sales at an early age.”
- Make kids personally responsible in some way. Four to 13 year olds who were asked to donate their Halloween candy to hospitalized children donated more (and were more likely to make a donation) when they felt personally responsible. Researchers made kids feel responsible when they said things like: “I will be counting on you and you and you…I will put each of your names on the bag of candy I give tomorrow to the hospitalized children” rather than “please give them as many as you want by putting the candies in the box on the table.”
- Don’t reward helping behavior. Very young children who receive material rewards for helping others become less likely to help in the future compared with toddlers who only receive verbal praise or receive no reward at all. This research suggests that even the youngest children are intrinsically motivated to be kind, and that extrinsic rewards can undermine this tendency.
“Some of us feel happy helping others while some feel happy hurting others. I opine that it is the conditioning by our parents when we were young that have led different people to different paths. As a parent, we need to reward our kids when they do a good deed so that they become condition to help others.”
What parents model conditions kids in ways that affect their behavior later (though I do have a hard time believing that anyone would feel true joy hurting another person). Although rewarding kids has been shown to backfire eventually, praising kids for helping others is a good idea if we use growth-mindset praise.
- Be positive. Parents who express positive feelings and use positive, non-coercive discipline raise children who are kinder and more compassionate toward others.
- Expose them to need. Too often we protect our kids from pain and suffering, and in so doing we shelter them from others’ needs. Consider the counter intuitive notion that compassion is a positive emotion strongly correlated with happiness, and provide them with opportunities to feel compassion. Teach kids that this compassion is a gift—it is a way to give their time, attention, and energy to another. Added bonus: When we expose kids to others’ suffering, they often feel both compassion and gratitude.
Christine Carter, Ph.D.*, is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. She is the author of “RAISIN G HAPPIN ESS: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.” She teaches online happiness classes that help parents bring more joy into their own lives and the lives of their children, and she writes an award-winning blog for *Greater Good* (www.greatergoodparents.org). “Sign up now with promotional code ActiveKids, and get $25 off the cost of the class!”