How do we raise a generation of kind children?

In an age of hatred and turmoil all over the world, raising kind children is all the more imperative.

 |  7-minute read |   09-01-2018
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It has never been as imperative to raise compassionate children as it is now. Constantly surrounded by hate bubbles, our world breeds negativity and polarisation each day, even if we play no part in it, and are mere passive recipients.

While kindness might seem pretty straightforward to learn, it’s far more complex and layered to teach, especially when we want children to make this a way of life and not stop at random acts of kindness. They need to be givers of kindness and this is a much harder goal to accomplish.

A lot has to do with what we say and do around them and how we come across as human beings to them – will we stick our necks out when something is wrong and try to right it, will we speak up for a lesser privileged person, or will we just adopt the herd mentality of pleasing what appears to be powerful?

There is a lot of secret divisiveness than often lies buried within us and comes out in a chance remark to an extreme situation — whether it’s an act of terrorism or a piece of breaking news involving members of a particular community or even something as harmless as a discussion about movies or movie actors.

parenting_010818083300.jpgThe practice of helping others and tuning in to others in need starts at home.

But this is not how we want them to inherit the earth. The last thing we need is to raise a bigoted generation that has no room for another way of being.

One often wonders whether a child is inherently good-natured or whether it is a trait that can be developed. What makes little children mean, and why are some meaner than others? Is it inherited, is it what they are watching or eating, is it their home environment?

There are no real answers, but it is certain that kindness needs to be taught as much as survival skills.

However, teaching children to care about others is not simple. Kindness also needs practice. It doesn’t come from nowhere. Kindness is more show than tell. Our children are always watching us, and most of what they learn is through observation. If you linger long enough around kids, inevitably someone ends up being teased, left out of a game, or bossed around.

It’s as if children are constantly testing out being nice, mean, or silly to see how their peers react. Early childhood, especially the pre-school years is also a time when kids begin to figure out group dynamics. When you watch them, it’s obvious that a lot of the insults, grabbing, and put-downs are part of this experimentation.

If I do x, will my friend do y? And if a child gets his way by intimidating, he/she may just raise the bar.

Very often, children display complete disregard for the feelings of others and unless the other person displays overt signs of hurt, don’t even notice it. On the other hand, there are parents monitoring their children’s moods all the time. Why are you sad today? Are you upset about something?

This obsession with their feelings makes children think about themselves constantly, and not enough about that new child in their class who is lonely, or that one who is being bullied.

When we focus too much on our children’s feelings and too little on their behaviour towards others, we are also telling them that we value their feelings over anyone else’s and that is a dangerous situation.

Bullying, even among small children is a steady but palpable movement in schools. Yes, things are still camouflaged as groupism and not very overt or malignant, but there are sure signs. Parents are always eager to know about their children – how well they are doing, how much they have progressed, what they can do to get even better at their work. No one is asking about their behaviour.

Parenting is a long ride and each of our kids will encounter (sometimes even be) the meanies of the world. It’s tempting to jump in and save our kids from every negative encounter.

But if we even vaguely understand where the meanness is coming from, maybe we can make sense of it in our own minds, treat it as a part of growing up, and ultimately help them to be kind and compassionate people.

Children may not be listening to what we tell them but they are always watching us — how we behave, especially towards people less privileged than us, the way we talk to family members, friends, the invisible people and the world at large.

The way we behave around strangers, the things we say about people behind their backs, how inclusive we are, the way we make sense of a divisive world, our attitude to inequality and the world at large — all of this shapes a child’s mind in a million different ways and we have to ensure that kindness, compassion and empathy are what stay behind the longest.

When children are too young to understand that being kind is the morally right thing to do, instilling kindness in is easier said than done. Here are a few tools to ensure you are on the right path:

1. Recognising and labelling kindness: Whenever your child practises an act of kindness, recognise it, and label it, so that associations are made. For example, every time she shares a toy with a neighbour, or offers to help her father take out the garbage, tell her it was kind of her and be thankful.

2. Having your child help in chores: The practice of helping others and tuning in to others in need starts at home. Assign some daily/weekly chores to your kid like setting the table, making the bed, feeding the cat, etc, and let him have sense of “when we help each other, things happen must faster and smoother”.

3. Recognising differences and privilege: Find ways to talk to your child about children who are lesser privileged than they are: children with special needs or children for a lower economic background, and use it as an example to foster tolerance and respect.

4. Recognising conflict from a child’s perspective and giving words to feelings: It’s hard for a child to make sense of things and name-calling seems to be the easiest way to label someone who has caused distress. Allow your child to explore her feelings, give names, shapes and even colours to them so that they can make sense of what they going through when something unpleasant is said or happens to them.

This way, the whole business of “He was so mean!” and “I will never talk to her again!” gets a deeper vocabulary and the child is able to work out more peaceable solutions.

5. Showing empathy to others: Walk the talk by practising kindness yourself, both with family and people outside. Telling your child to be kind and then being rude to the driver of the domestic help over small things doesn’t help. Be a good neighbour, help someone beyond the call of duty, (like helping a neighbour carry their groceries), thank people constantly for small things they do for you — your child is watching and learning.

6. Practising gratitude: Always thank random acts of kindness whenever it is from your child, someone in your family or a stranger. When the child sees kindness fostering such positivity, the same child will then go out and volunteer to help someone outside — help someone with their classwork/project, keep the classroom tidy, help an old person cross the road. Kindness has a way of multiplying and, soon, the child will see that.

In an age of hatred and turmoil all over the world, raising kind children is all the more imperative. Children need to know that kindness is a way of being; understanding this and being kind to other people is what will make the world a better place.

Of course we need to work with them by being kind ourselves and there is no limit to the influence adults can have in building this empathy among children. Of course, each child is different and so is their capacity to empathise, but at the end of the day, there is a residual kindness among each one of us, and it is what we need to bring to the fore.

Also read - To Kill a Mockingbird taught me to be a better parent

Writer

Sashwati Banerjee Sashwati Banerjee @bongchild

Managing director, Sesame Workshop in India

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