I’m not usually the superstitious type. Sure, I believe in the Chinese zodiac and its predictions on personality, relationships and success in life, but things like phases of the moon or Friday the 13th or 666 being unlucky numbers are simply beyond me. But somehow, for the past few weeks, I’ve stumbled on several articles in various locations around the internet, including a podcast, that share a common theme — kindness, or more specifically, how to instill kindness in children.
I first learned about teaching kindness to children through reading a book by the psychologist Thomas Lickona called “How to Raise Kind Kids” last year. Although it had some interesting points, I wasn’t entirely impressed by it, so I put the book towards the back of my mind and never thought about it again. It wasn’t until last month that I came upon this article in the Ted blog, which led to this video by Ellen Rogin. It wasn’t really about kindness, but in it, she mentioned how showing gratitude can have positive effects for us all.
Then, as June crept along, I came upon this article on CNN from the infamous Esther Wojcicki, (or “the silicon valley grandmother” as some media outlets have dubbed her) about her parenting secrets. She’s famous because she managed (with the help of her husband) to raise three very successful women. One of them is a college professor/researcher for a prestigious university. Another is the CEO of YouTube, and another is the co-founder of 23andMe. After reading the article, I found her to be quite pretentious and snooty. But she did project some very valid and fine wisdom (perhaps this article from Time magazine is a better reflection of who she is/was as a parent. I feel like she must’ve written the articles on different days, for the tone in each article was different to me). And this ‘wisdom’ I shall say, led me to read an excerpt of her book, How to Raise Successful People.
And it was through reading this excerpt and her articles that made me realize that she was onto something. Still, time went by and then I discovered this podcast episode from NPR (you can listen to it on iTunes or read the transcript here). Finally, the other day, while searching for something else, this article serendipitously appeared in my search results, which led me to read it and ponder on what all of these could’ve mean and how it can help me parent my own kids.
Much of what was said in these articles & media is centered around behavior — specifically, the behavior of adults more than the behavior of children. Sure, kids act out, kids are mean, but they’re also really spongy — they absorb information from us, the adults, the parents in more ways than we realize.
One of the common themes that came in my mind is the sense of community, of caring about something or someone else other than yourself. In the article, “How to raise a child who cares,” the authors emphasized the fact that kids can develop their own sense of what’s “normal” behavior based on what they see you doing. When they see you being nice and empathetic to others, they will no doubt think that it is normal. But if they’re seeing you as a mean-spirited individual who doesn’t care about others, they will also think of that as their normal.
Not surprisingly, this particular “modeling” mindset is spread across the board. Esther Wojcicki wrote in her articles about the importance of giving back to the community and teaching kids to care. She wrote,
“I grew up believing it was my duty to contribute and make our community better. I still feel that way. If everyone just sits around and talks, nothing gets done….I lectured to them about the importance of serving the community — but because I truly cared. I tried to show them through my actions what they could achieve.” — Esther Wojcicki
On top of that, oftentimes we adults (think, parents) try to correct kids’ behaviors when we should try to recognize what kids are doing right. Well, what if they’re not doing anything right, you ask? If that’s the case, then perhaps it’s time to have a check-in with yourself. You need to “walk the walk,” so they say. If you are not practicing gratitude or kindness towards others, how can you expect your kids to do the same?
This is deep stuff, I know, and it’s not easy to do. I don’t even know if I’m actually expressing this to my kids sometimes. But the message is clear — act like you care, so that your kids will care too. As mentioned in the Life Kit Parenting podcast episode, the truth is parents are sending kids mixed messages about kindness. For as long as we can remember, much emphasis has been placed on obtaining academic success over emotional intelligence. (Tiger moms, anyone?) And that’s a shame, because when kids are mean to each other, that becomes our problem too.
Although my dad is no longer around, I can remember many instances in my childhood where his behavior didn’t make any sense, and it certainly exasperated my mom. She was more of a believer in rules, processes and results, whereas he was more into people and less on results. As poor as we were, he’d always give someone money if they asked, and if he had them, even if it was his last dollar. On top of that, he volunteered a lot at our church. I attributed the volunteering to his commitment in our religion, but I didn’t understand the “giving money away” thing. After all, we didn’t have much, so why give it away? Why not keep it for yourself?
Many years later, I realized that he lived by his life motto, which is “There’s always someone worse off than you!” –he reminded me of this all the time, and it has made a lasting impact on me, because whenever I think about the world and my place in it, especially if I’m in a bad situation and I feel like life has wronged me, I’m reminded of the phrase in my head and how incredibly true it is — that as perverse as it sounds, there is always someone worse off than you, and therefore you should be incredibly grateful for what you do have. What’s also important to remember is that kindness is a feeling as well as an action, and kindness requires the courage to act, which will translate to others as you having the capacity to care.
I can’t say that I’m an expert or even better than any other parent with respect to teaching kindness, but I can say that learning about this subject has been immensely helpful. I realize that my kids are still too young to really fathom the concept of empathy but even better so that they’re young and malleable, hence I have more years to teach them. And if I learned anything from my dad, it’s that giving back and thinking about others can have a lasting impact on their lives, because kindness is no small feat.