Being compassionate and doing good deeds helps kids build confidence and feel happy, experts say. (Photo: Hill Street Studios/Eric Raptosh)
No parent in the world wants her child to grow up selfish and mean-spirited. But if you aren’t actively teaching your kids to be compassionate and caring, that might be the result. That’s because kids tend to be on the receiving end of some mixed messages when it comes to the value of kindness.
A recent Harvard University study bears this out. Researchers surveyed approximately 10,000 middle school and high-school age kids across all income levels and ethnic backgrounds between 2013 and 2014. When asked whether it was more important to them to be personally successful or kind, 75 percent picked success. Researchers also asked the kids what they felt their parents emphasized more; about 80 percent went with personal success.
The response caught the research team off guard. But it makes sense, they believe, considering that so many children grow up with parents and teachers who focus on achievement-oriented goals, such as acing standardized tests and getting into a good college. For today’s kids, high self-esteem has a higher value than acting selflessly.
“There seems to be even more of a frenzy on test scores and college admissions as a path toward personal achievement and happiness,” Richard Weissbourd, part of the team that conducted the survey and co-director of Making Caring Common, an initiative at Harvard, tells Yahoo Parenting. “We tell kids to value their own happiness and feelings, not the happiness and feelings of others.”
Kindness gets further lost in the mix amid a larger popular culture that rewards a win-at-all-costs mentality and personal success. “We have it backward: success doesn’t make a person happy, but caring and doing good deeds for others does,” says Weissbourd.
Other experts not affiliated with Making Caring Common agree. “Happiness is a worthwhile goal, but it’s the result of having a life rich in meaning and engagement,” family therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer tells Yahoo Parenting. “The people who are the happiest at any age are those who are engaged in the world through service to others.”
Kids also get the wrong message be watching the adults in their lives. “Parents in particular have gotten caught up in external and selfish notions of success,” says Hokemeyer. “They’re forced to compete in a hyper-competitive world that is driven by commercial interests rather than authentic needs. Bigger houses, faster cars, admission to elite colleges—these have become goals that parents themselves strive for.”
Though it’s impossible to dial back a larger culture that focuses on winning and success, you can avoid modeling this behavior for your kids. These pointers will help them understand why practicing kindness and compassion breeds true success.
Praise hard work and kindness rather than achievement. “If you reserve praise for getting an A on a test or scoring the winning goal in the soccer game, your child will think success is what matters most,” Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, tells Yahoo Parenting. Instead, praise your child for things like showing good sportsmanship or studying hard, so you’re calling out the virtue that helped them accomplish the achievement.
Be a compassionate role model. Kids, especially young children, learn by example. Doing small acts of kindness that they can witness—helping a neighbor unload groceries, pitching in for a community event, or giving up your seat for an elderly person—speak volumes, says Morin.
Remind kids about people in need. “Make sure your child knows that there are plenty of people outside of your immediate family and friends who need help,” says Morin. Volunteer together at a food pantry, or participate in a fundraiser for people you’ve never met. Even a 5K or walkathon gets the message across that helping others and having fun aren’t mutually exclusive.
Express gratitude when someone helps you. Calling out a friend or stranger who lends a hand shows kids that being caring is something praiseworthy. Even a general blessing when your family gets together gets this point across, and it doesn’t have to include a religious focus, says Weissbourd.
Start a daily kindness ritual. At dinner or bedtime each day, ask your child about a kind deed she did that day. “Make this a daily ritual,” says Morin, “and your child will begin recognizing opportunities to perform acts of kindness for others.”