By Alex Packer, author of How Rude!® The Teen Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out
Ah, the long-awaited holiday season! What’s not to love?
Long lines. Crowded stores. Stampeding shoppers.
Parking lot slugfests. Tedious office parties. Overbooked flights.
Obnoxious uncles. Alcoholic in-laws. Grandpa’s fourth wife. People who don’t RSVP. Guests who don’t leave. Kids who don’t say thank you. Gaining back in a week the 10 pounds you took all year to lose.
And let’s not forget your college classmate’s annual “Dear Friends” newsletter telling you all about the family ski trip to Gstaad, Ted’s raise, Lorraine being made partner, Ted junior’s acceptance at Harvard, and little Lucy’s first-prize ribbon in dressage—“She has such a gift with horses!”
All capped with New Year’s to remind you of the passing of another year of failed dreams, dashed hopes, and financial disaster.
Well, enough of this good cheer. The holidays can also be a time of depression, exhaustion, conflict, and stress.
First line of defense? Good manners, of course. But you knew I’d say that. I’m the manners guy. The rough edges of relatives and rudeness can be smoothed by a bit of tolerance and consideration, perspective and patience. So I could write about chewing with your mouth closed and keeping elbows off the table; about shaking hands and taking coats; sharing treats and saying “please”; showing thanks and offering to help; greeting guests and PUTTING AWAY YOUR PHONE!
But I won’t. Instead, I want to talk about kindness. Why kindness? Because being kind makes you feel good. And it makes the recipient of your kindness feel good as well. And that makes him or her more likely to behave kindly in turn. Isn’t that what we really want at this time of year?
During the holidays, we up the ante in doing things to make our kids happy. We give them treats, take them on special outings, cook their favorite foods, and buy them presents. It’s part of the joy of the holiday season. But we can make our kids even happier by encouraging them to be givers of goodness, and not just receivers.
A growing body of research demonstrates the contagious and positive impact of behaving in kind and generous ways. In an experiment published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers James Fowler of UCSD and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University devised a game to examine how behaviors spread through social communities. They divided participants into groups of four, giving each person 20 credits. Players, in secret, could either keep the credits for themselves, or give a portion (or all) to a common fund. At the conclusion of the game, the fund would be augmented by 40 percent, with the proceeds divided equally and returned to the participants. Mathematically, the best return would be achieved if everyone gave away all their money, since players would reap their original 20 credits plus the 40 percent bonus. Without knowing how much others were contributing to the common fund, however, the best financial strategy would be to hold on to your own 20 credits, and then benefit from the generosity of your fellow players when the common fund gets distributed.
At the conclusion of each game, participants learned anonymously how others in their group behaved. Players were then assigned to new groups to play the game again. The researchers found that generosity begat generosity. Meticulously tracing each player’s behavior to see how it influenced group members in subsequent games, the study showed a cause-and-effect result: One person’s largess triggered greater generosity in those with whom they played. In fact, acts of giving tripled over the course of the study.
In another study, called Kindness Counts, several hundred kids ages 9 to 11 in British Columbia were randomly divided into two groups. One group was instructed to perform three acts of kindness of their own choosing per week for four weeks, while the other was instructed to visit any three places they wished (e.g., “shopping centre,” “baseball diamond,” “Grandma’s house”). Acts of kindness included such behaviors as “gave my mom a hug when she was stressed by her job,” “gave someone some of my lunch,” and “invited someone to join a game.” Students kept a record of their journeys or kind acts.
Children in both groups reported greater feelings of happiness and well-being at the end of the experiment. But the kids who committed acts of kindness experienced a bonus—they became significantly more popular than did their classmates who just visited places.
These and other studies suggest that doing good for others can trigger a cascade of benefits for kids, families, classrooms, and school communities. The benefits can travel across many degrees of separation, influencing total strangers in distant locations. Here’s how it works: Kids who behave kindly experience increased happiness. Happy kids are more likely to engage in further acts of kindness, leading to greater peer acceptance and satisfying friendships. Well-liked kids are less likely to be bullied, and more likely to perform well academically and be emotionally well-adjusted. Thus, happiness, popularity, and kindness have a reciprocal, reinforcing effect on one another. And, as other children experience this sphere of goodness, their feelings of well-being are likely to increase, triggering a further increase in prosocial behaviors and peer acceptance. This can have a powerful positive impact on classroom climate as the average mental health of students in classrooms with an even distribution of popularity is higher than in stratified classrooms with extremes of favored children and marginalized children.
These and similar findings suggest that one of the best ways to thrive during the holidays—to avoid conflict, hurt feelings, resentment, and exhaustion—is to focus your family and/or classroom on a kindness crusade.
Here’s how. Gather everyone together. Explain that the holidays can be a busy and stressful time with crowds, deadlines, pressures, and demands. And that this can lead to fights, slights, tears, and trauma.
Therefore—drum roll, please—we are going to have a Family/Classroom Kindness Campaign. Every day from now until January 1, each of us (adults, too) will:
- Perform an act of kindness for someone else
- Perform an act of kindness for ourselves
- Think of one thing we’re grateful for
Everyone should be able to come up with examples of kindness, e.g., visiting a sick friend, giving someone your seat on a bus, holding a door, consoling a sibling, making a present, etc. (Anonymous acts of kindness and volunteering as a family count, too.) The idea of being kind to oneself may require a little discussion. When you’re focused on others—a hallmark of the holidays—it’s easy to forget your own needs. Self-kindness isn’t selfishness; it’s taking care of yourself so you have the energy and emotional well-being to take care of others. It means doing something that makes you feel happy, entertained, relaxed, comforted, or fulfilled: taking a nap or bubble bath, going for a nature hike, reading a book, eating a nice meal out, etc.
Students, teachers, and family members should record and share their kind acts and grateful feelings. This can be done at mealtimes or during class. It can be done daily or every few days depending on your sense of the best frequency for keeping the campaign alive without overdoing it. The idea is to reinforce the process by publicly describing acts of kindness, recognizing the recipients’ delight or other positive consequences, and talking about the feelings of pride, purpose, connection, gratitude, and/or joy that ensued for both giver and receiver.
You can explain to any groaners, cynics, or eyeball rollers that behaving kindly will not only make them feel good, it will improve the behavior of those ingrates, slobs, narcissists, and pesky siblings who surround them. It’s scientifically proven! In fact, many social scientists believe that kindness, empathy, laughter, generosity, cooperation, gratitude, and self-sacrifice play a critical role in evolution. Indeed, while “survival of the fittest” makes us think of aggression, strength, competition, and dominance, Darwin believed that the caring emotions associated with human goodness were just as vital to perpetuating the species.
At the end of the Kindness Campaign, you can decide whether it has the momentum and buy-in to continue beyond January 1, or is best tucked away, like Grandma’s fancy tablecloth, until next year’s holiday season.
Well, I’m going to have to sign off for now. It’s a busy time for the Manners Guru to the Youth of America, and I see somebody texting at the table. So many smartphones. So little time….
Alex J. Packer received his Ph.D. in educational and developmental psychology from Boston College and his master’s degree in education from Harvard. He has been headmaster of an alternative school for 11- to 15-year-olds and director of education at the Capital Children’s Museum. He is president emeritus of FCD Educational Services, a Boston-based provider of drug education and substance abuse prevention services to schools worldwide. He is also the author of an eBook for teens Wise Highs: How to Thrill, Chill, and Get Away from It All Without Alcohol or Drugs.
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