They were up on the ropes course at MOSI. My son was about 9 years-old at the time and he was fearlessly navigating the twists and turns and the narrow spots with ease about 30 feet off the ground. I was down on the ground observing, seriously in awe of his fearlessness and skill.
He saw her first. She looked like she couldn’t be older than 5 and she was also on the ropes course by herself. She was tiny and lacked the physical ability to move her rope around the large structural poles, so she was stuck there, unable to go forward or backwards. My son was on the other side of the course, but he quickly made his way over to where she was to help her.
No one prompted him. No one told him to help her. He saw that she needed some help and did it.
I would love to say that it was all the wonderful parenting I’ve done with him, but it’s more complicated than that. As I’ve watched parents interact with their kids around kindness, manners, and other social skills, I’ve learned a thing or two that may be helpful on your parenting journey, as well.
1. Children pay more attention to what you do and to who you are than the words you say to them.
Be who you want them to be. If you want them to be kind, be kind to them and to others. Model it. Be the best you that you can be. Hold the door for strangers yourself. Notice the mother with 2 kids who is struggling to unload her groceries into the car and help. Do what you want them to do. Be who you want them to be.
2. You won’t always be able to do #1. You’re human.
So take the opportunity when you haven’t been kind to your child or someone else to repair and reconnect. This shows that everyone makes mistakes, even parents! By saying out loud, “I didn’t handle that very well. I wasn’t nice to our neighbor. I’m going to tell him I’m sorry and find a way to make that feel better.” Or if it was with your child, something like this: “I’m sorry that I (raised my voice, spoke harshly, was rough with you). I can imagine that was scary for you (or whatever feeling you think they may have been feeling). I’d like to try that again in a way that feels better for both of us.”
In the book, Connection Parenting, Pam Leo talks about Rewind-Repair-Replay. So rewind what just happened, repair by saying you’re sorry and then try it again the way you wanted it to go. Being kind won’t be an all-the-time thing for anyone unless you’re a saint, so figure out how to repair and reconnect. It’s good for everyone.
3. Notice when they’re kind and help them connect with how it feels for them.
Instead of praising them, help them make their own connections with how good it feels to just be kind. This helps motivation to come from within them (intrinsic motivation) rather than relying on external motivation (rewards and punishment) to continue those kinds of behaviors. As an example, when my son came down off the ropes course, my first instinct was to praise his kindness. I resisted that urge and really focused on repeating what I saw him do. “I saw you notice the little girl was having a hard time. You went across the ropes course and were able to help her. How did that feel to help her?” This allowed him to make his own connections and internal dialogue about what he had done.
4. When they’re not kind, help them connect with how it feels to them when someone isn’t kind to them.
When we can help them make feeling/heart connections rather than just head/thinking connections, the learning is deeper and more meaningful. Punishing someone who isn’t kind models power-over (someone bigger hurting someone smaller) which is the opposite of what we’re striving for here.
This doesn’t mean that you need to be unkind to them so that they can feel what that’s like. But help them to think of a time when someone wasn’t kind to them and have them connect with that experience. You can ask them what they needed when someone wasn’t kind to them and ask if the person they weren’t kind to might need the same thing. So if your child says that they needed a hug, ask if the child they were unkind to might need the same thing.
5. Consider a kindness journal to write down things other did that were kind.
This cultivates awareness of kindness without it needing to be a direct lesson. When they notice what it’s like when someone else is kind to them, they’re more likely to find opportunities to be kind to others.
When it comes down to it, kindness is really about empathy. It’s the ability to put oneself into someone else’s shoes and that begins with your relationship with them. We are hard-wired within our brains to connect with one another and to feel what someone else is feeling. Cultivating kindness is about nurturing what is already in us, helping our children to connect to themselves, and learning to repair when we don’t handle things the way we want.
I’d love to hear how you’re able to apply these ideas in your family. Please feel free to email me and share! Together, we can cultivate kindness in the world one family and one child at a time. It matters.