How to Raise Our Kids With a Kindness Advantage
(The following is an excerpt from “The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Compassionate and Connected Children”)
No kind action ever stops with itself.
One kind action leads to another. Good example is followed.
A single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions,
and the roots spring up and make new trees.
The greatest work that kindness does to others is
that it makes them kind themselves.
—Amelia Earhart, pilot
Why kindness? That’s a good question. Here’s the short answer: because kindness leads to a lot of other good things like compassion,
happiness, future success, better relationships, improved self-esteem, and good mental and physical health. And don’t we all want that for our children, our families, and our community? In this chapter, we’ll look at the research that supports the specifics of the longer answer.
So how does nurturing kindness in our children make for happier kids, more harmonious homes, and a healthier society? As we will discuss further, empathy is one of the foundations for kindness. Empathy is the connection with another person that enables us to experience what he or she is thinking or feeling. Children as young as eight months old respond empathically when witnessing their mothers in distress. In one study, researchers reported: “all of the infants showed genuine empathy in emotional and cognitive ways.”1 In research-based community programs designed to foster social and emotional sensitivity in very young children, such as Roots of Empathy, empathy is taught by focusing on feelings of others. This important skill helps make for happier homes and families. Through these programs, families from different backgrounds get to spend time together in a natural way.
If you have been book shopping over the past several years you won’t be surprised to know that the field of happiness is thriving. What you may not know is that psychologists have been studying happiness for many years. 2 In the last thirty or so years, these scientists have begun to examine what makes people happy, thrive, and flourish. “Research shows that performing positive activities such as expressing gratitude and doing acts of kindness boosts happiness.”3 Although much of this research has been with adults, children are now becoming the focus of more studies. One recent pioneering study with nine- to eleven-year-olds underscored the benefits to children who perform acts of kindness on a regular basis. The researchers found that these children, in addition to seeing positive changes in their academic experience, were more socially accepted. You could probably have guessed that those might be some of the benefits to the individual child; they are obvious. What may be less obvious is the benefit to their entire community. From engaging in acts of kindness, these children tend to be more inclusive and less likely to bully others as teenagers.4 By nurturing our children to be kind, we are taking the first step in building happier, more harmonious communities.
Another study of kindness and happiness explores the “feedback loop” between them. “The practical implications of this positive feedback loop could be that engaging in one kind deed . . .would make you happier, and the happier you feel, the more likely you are to do another kind act.”5 Another version of this phenomenon is the “helper’s high” first described by Allan Luks as “the powerful physical feelings people experience when directly helping others.”6 Three major aspects of the helper’s high are the release of endorphins, a feeling of satisfaction, and overall improvement in physical and emotional health. Anyone who has done something kind for another person knows that it feels good. Now we have the science that tells us why.
In various studies to support this, scientists notice changes in the brain when people think good thoughts, do kind acts themselves, or even observe other people performing kind acts. Endorphins or “feel good chemicals” are secreted in our brain; these secretions improve our mood. Another important hormone in this process, and one that is directly related to social connection, is oxytocin. It works in concert with serotonin, one of the endorphins released in the helper’s high. “When it is operating during times of low stress, oxytocin physiologically rewards those who maintain good social bonds with feelings of well-being. “Another interesting aspect of this hormone is that when it is released during a stressful or painful time in someone’s life “it may lead people to seek out more and better social contacts.”9 It is pretty amazing that we now know that when people are looking for ways to feel better when they are stressed or in pain, helping others will help them, too. Through MRI scans, researchers can see that when you help someone, a specific region of your brain lights up. This gives you a feeling of “warm glow” that underscores the emotional benefits to kindness.
Did you know that volunteering could improve your health and help you live longer? A major government study of adults who volunteer found multiple benefits to physical and mental health such as improved cardiovascular function, increased sense of purpose and life satisfaction, and lower rates of depression.10 According to statistics compiled by the National Philanthropic Trust, approximately 25 percent of the adult population in the United States volunteer with the top four areas being religious, educational, social service, and health organizations. Much of the research on volunteerism has been done with older adults, not surprising, since they often have more time.
The growing research on children in schools gives us insight into the positive effects they experience when helping others. Over the past twenty-five years, Service Learning (SL), has become a popular and meaningful way that students of all ages can become engaged in community service through their schools. Barbara Jacoby, a leader in the field of Service Learning, defines it as “a form of experiential education in which students engage in activities that address human and community needs together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes.”11 There are positive results about the effects of service learning programs on young people. “Students participating in SL programs demonstrate significant gains in five outcome areas: attitudes toward self, attitudes toward school and learning, civic engagement, social skills, and academic performance. These findings bolster the views of educators who posit that SL programs can benefit students at different educational levels in several ways. These multiple benefits include such areas as enhanced self-efficacy and self-esteem, more positive attitudes toward school and education, an increase in positive attitudes and behaviors related to community involvement, and gains in social skills relating to leadership and empathy.”12 Students who experience these gains understand firsthand the value of kindness and connection which enables them to be contributing members of their communities. Sounds good to us!
There are so many reasons that kindness is important. At its essence, kindness allows us to develop awareness of and sensitivity to others. Having concern for others and being able to show that concern through our thoughts and actions will help us feel connected to those around us. This is not a new phenomenon. It was Charles Darwin, who, within the context of survival mechanisms, understood that we have an instinct to be sympathetic and caring.”13 To respond compassionately to someone else, we need to observe and understand what they are experiencing. In his book, The Altruistic Brain, Dr. Ronald Pfaff states, “how scientifically reasonable it can be to rely on the idea that we are wired from infancy to ‘do the right thing’.14 Even though we are hardwired for it, we need to work at it. With practice we can get really good at acting with kindness.
Do you remember the “Golden Rule”? Most of us, regardless of our different faiths and backgrounds, are taught this adage from a very early age. The Parliament of World Religions, the oldest, largest, and most inclusive convening organization of the global interfaith movement has opined on this topic. In 1993 they created their Declaration Toward a Global Ethic, a document that reiterates their commitment to the ideal of the golden rule. But how often do we actually ask ourselves, “How do I want to treat other people and how do I want to be treated?” At a time when we see so much rude behavior in the headlines and all around us, and targets of bullying are getting younger and younger, the world might be a better place if we asked that question more often. Kindness is really important now. And each act of kindness makes a difference.
Even the smallest gesture of kindness communicates to someone that we respect and value them. As we model kindness for our children, and offer them their own opportunities to practice it, they will become more open to and understanding of others. With this mindset we are more likely to meet and connect with different kinds of people creating bonds that might not have formed otherwise. This can work in both directions, with our openness attracting other people to us as well. The Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hahn is often quoted as saying, “Compassion is a verb . . .Compassion and action go hand-in-hand.” We look for ways to be compassionate, kind, and helpful so we can change the world and make it a better place. That is The Kindness Advantage, and as we discussed above, we are wired for it.
Even three-month-old infants evaluate others based on their social behavior towards third parties.”15 Researchers at The Baby Lab at Yale University have conducted numerous studies with infants as young as three months old. Through a series of studies referred to as The Climber Studies, babies responded to “helpers” and “hinderers” who interacted with a character attempting to climb a hill. These infants showed a clear preference for the “helper” indicating their understanding of helping another in need. There is also evidence that toddlers feel good when they give to others. One study found “that before the age of two, toddlers exhibit greater happiness when giving treats to others than receiving treats themselves.”16
In a different study of children of a similar age watching a familiar adult “playmate” who was playing with a teddy bear that became “injured,” it was found that children “have access to the inner experience of other people, and they are socially competent to intervene in another’s favor.”17 Isn’t that remarkable? Clearly, these studies support the emotional preference for and desire to help that children experience from a very young age. “Studies suggest that perhaps kindness doesn’t need to be taught anew as much as supported more continuously from an early age.”18 That is why we believe it is never too early to start modeling, reinforcing, and incorporating kindness into our everyday lives. The words of renowned psychologist and researcher Dr. Richard Davidson are compelling: “I would say from everything we know from a neuroscientific perspective, it’s very important to begin as early as possible. We know that the brain is more plastic earlier in life. That is why it’s easier for young children to learn a second language than it is for adults; it’s why it’s easier for young children to learn to play a musical instrument than it is for adults. Young children’s brains are inherently more malleable; they’re more flexible.”19
Research has shown that in the chaos of daily life, while focusing on reinforcing their children’s achievements, parents of preschoolers can miss their child’s acts of kindness.20 We will help you train yourself to be alert to those expressions of kindness that are so important and often missed. In addition, because we spend so much time with our young children we have a unique opportunity to set a positive example and nurture the foundation for kindness within our families. Being kind can make us feel good, help us feel connected to others, and give our life meaning. That is why taking action now will give your child The Kindness Advantage.