February and Hearts always seem to naturally go hand-in-hand. For so many reasons our thoughts always turn to affairs of the heart at this time of year. What better character trait then to focus on, but “Kind-Hearted”?
When a group of people were asked what kindness meant to them, there were many different responses: compassion, generosity, empathy, justice, alleviating suffering. These may all seem like different answers but every one of them involves an underlying consideration of others, rather than acting out of self-interest.
Whatever kindness means to us, it is so important that we help nurture it in our children from a very young age. Even before our children are old enough to act kindly, we can start talking about it. According to Psychiatrist, Kelli Harding MD, empathy is hardwired in us from birth through what’s known as the mirror-neuron system, and we intuitively feel what others feel. If empathy is understanding, then compassion is acting on that understanding. This step comes along as children develop and mature. Youngsters are naturally self-centered, making it difficult for them at times to see the big picture and put themselves in someone else’s shoes. That does not mean however that children are naturally unkind. As the adults in their lives, we need to grasp every opportunity to teach and model kindness and take advantage of the natural instincts that we are all born with.
Mary Gordon is the founder of a program called Roots of Empathy, designed to instill emotional and social competence in children and reduce aggression. Mary pulls no punches when she says that in order to be kind, you have to experience it at home. And warning, lip service doesn’t do the trick. A Harvard study conducted through their Graduate School of Education, found that 80 percent of youth felt that their parents cared more about their personal achievements or happiness than whether they are kind human beings! Of the 10,000 students surveyed, they were three times as likely to agree than disagree with the statement, “My parents are prouder if I get good grades than if I am a caring community member”. Now that hurts my heart just reading this!
Clearly, we have to do more to instill, in our children, the importance of kindness in the world. But how? First, we can start at home by modelling for them (remember no lip service!). They need to see us living the concepts of kindness, compassion and empathy in our everyday lives rather than just talking about them. The younger the child, the more concrete actions they must see to truly learn it. We must also remain in the kind zone in our interactions with others, including our family, and be kind even when we don’t feel like it. Reminders of the importance of trying to put themselves in someone else’s shoes is so critical for developing a kind heart in children. Presenting our children with the question “what would that feel like?” is one of the most powerful habits we can instill in them. Here we can use our children’s active imaginations to develop their compassion muscle. The old adage “if you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing” is key to teaching children about how hurtful judgement and lack of compassion can be. And of course, speaking kind words, sharing smiles and polite interactions with others, is a habit we should be helping them to develop. Kindness really is like a muscle…the more we practice, the easier it is going to be.
Although there are many ways to introduce the concept of kindness to our children, the most important thing to remember is that we really do need to be the behaviour we want to see in our children. How do we behave out in the world, not only to people we know but also to complete strangers. Are we too busy or distracted for a kind word or deed? Do our children hear our conversations of judgement, ridicule, or complaint? We can’t control our children’s behaviour, but we can look for ways to demonstrate kind behaviour ourselves. And it’s okay to let them know that kindness can be hard sometimes, even for adults. It can be challenging to be kind all the time and it doesn’t always flow out of us naturally, but we should remember that our children are always watching us!
Being kind-hearted is a win/win situation for everyone. Kindness makes the world a better place and helps us all navigate the challenges of life with greater ease. “A kind heart is the essential cause of happiness. Being kind to others is the nicest thing we can do for ourselves” (Thubten Chodron). Kindness really is the most fundamental expression of what it means to be a human being and if we think of kindness as “seeing with our hearts”, how can we go wrong?