By Garth Sundem, author of Real Kids, Real Stories, Real Change.
Maybe if you turn three times in a circle while hopping on one leg and then hoot the Stanford University fight song in the voice of a tawny owl, you can make the young people in your life kinder—to you, to their peers, to themselves. Poof! Just like magic, empathy, goodwill, and cute-puppy-hugging will abound. And if that doesn’t work, try these four strategies shown in peer-reviewed journal studies to boost kindness in children and teens.
Note: The articles linked in the post are published in journals that require membership or payment to access.
1. Model Empathy
A study published in the journal Child Development looked at how teachers influenced empathy and aggression in 82 middle school classrooms. What the study found is very cool: Teachers who had a high aversion to aggression “enhanced the self-perceptions of both aggressive and withdrawn children.” By refusing aggression, teachers didn’t throw aggressive students under the bus—instead, everyone felt better about themselves and others. And teachers who rejected aggression in favor of personal warmth toward their students created classrooms in which students self-policed violence from the room while respecting their more withdrawn classmates.
2. Use Folktales
Think about the folktales you know: Anansi and the Dispersal of Wisdom, Jack and the Beanstalk, Coyote Places the Stars. Not only are these tales moral lessons, but they expose kids to the ways cultures around the world deal with their problems. An article in the International Journal of Early Childhood describes the experience of a Kenyan teacher in the period just after independence from British colonial rule who used Indian folktales to teach kindness in his classroom. He told the story of The King of the Banyan Deer, who offers to sacrifice his life to save a mother deer from another herd. He told the story of A Glass of Doodh (a tea and milk beverage), in which a king presents a full glass of doodh to a priest and his people seeking refuge in the kingdom—the king means the full glass to show that the kingdom is already full, but the priest adds sugar, showing that his people would sweeten the kingdom without overflowing the glass. Through teaching these folktales and then helping kids act them out, the teacher observed that, “This diverse group of children treated each other more kindly, talked to each other in respectful tones, and played with children who were members of ethnic groups other than their own.”
3. Make Kids Feel Good
In a famous paper subtitled “Cookies and Kindness” researchers Alice Isen and Paula Levin show that kids who feel good about themselves are kinder to others. When subjects found a dime in the coin-return well of a pay phone (yes, this was 1972), they were more likely to help a person pick up dropped papers. When researchers gave kids cookies, they were more likely to volunteer to help a peer in need. The researchers put it this way: “Subjects who have unexpectedly received cookies help more.” (My wife knows this: in me, oatmeal raisin cookies spontaneously induce laundry-folding behaviors.)
4. Doing Is Knowing
Modeling is all well and good (see #1), but then the time comes when a child needs to experience acting kindly to make it part of his or her behavioral and emotional repertoire. Really: As lovely as Dora the Explorer undoubtedly is, a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Development shows that kids who role-play acts of kindness go on to act more kindly in everyday life than kids who watched similar acts of kindness on television. You probably already guessed that, but it’s always good to have proof: Help your kids walk a mile in the shoes of kindness and they will learn to be kind.
Garth Sundem has written several books for teachers and kids. He has lived in many different countries and has pursued various interests, including rock climbing and music. At the moment, he lives in Boulder, Colorado.
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