How to Raise Kinder Kids, According to the Experts

Despite a tough political season, I still have so much hope for our children's future because of the many parents, grandparents, caregivers and educators (from both parties) I have spoken with who are ready to roll up their sleeves, and get busy raising a generation of kids that are kinder, more understanding, accepting and loving. Fortunately for us, there is a growing body of research called behavioral economics that explores the sometimes irrational ways we all make decisions and think about the world. The hope of the researchers, according to Karen Weese, is that maybe if we can understand a little more about the instinctive, irrational quirks of our kids' minds, then we'll be better equipped to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. According to Adam Grant's article Raising a Moral Child, studies suggest that anywhere from a quarter to more than half of our propensity to be giving and caring is inherited (i.e. nature). That leaves us a lot of room for nurture, for us to use these researched-based recommendations to mold our children's hearts, and encourage their actions. So, let's get started.

First, in order to evoke kindness from our children we, as parents and teachers, must make sure we're modeling what that looks like. Research shows that often times, when someone offends us by being rude, cutting in line, being late, making us wait, or any other number of things, we often reflexively attribute it to an intrinsic character of the person. For example, when I get cut off in traffic, I may say "Ugh, that guy is such a jerk! He almost caused me to wreck." Yet, according to the article How to Raise Kinder, Less Entitled Kids (according to science), when we inconvenience others, we generally blame outside forces, like, "Oh, sorry I'm late. I hit every redlight on the way here." This Scrooge-like tendency is so universal that behavioral scientists have a name for it: the fundamental attribution error. Being aware of this behavior is the first step to changing it. Next time someone cuts us off in traffic, we can try modeling what it looks like to un-center ourselves from the situation, and not attribute the other person's action to their intrinsic character. Instead of saying, "Ugh, that guy is such a jerk! He almost caused me to wreck." We can try responding in a non-personal, even compassionate way, "Wow, he must really be in a hurry to get somewhere, I hope everything is ok," because, honestly, that person probably didn't cut you off to offend you, or even notice you at all, for that matter. I know I am guilty of getting completely annoyed when someone is driving slow in front of me, thinking things like, "Get out of my way." "You're going to make me late to work!" "Do you even know how to drive?" Then, when I speed around the car, I see a sweet-looking grandpa who is completely oblivious to his surroundings, and is definitely not trying to make me late to work, or ruin my day. Un-centered thinking allows for compassion for the other person's situation, whether they deserve it or not, and will show children how to think outside of themselves. 

Next, encouraging kids to show acts of kindness, or spread friendly wishes, is huge. I recently taught a lesson on acts of kindness where I showed this YouTube video of a girl who did twenty simple acts of kindness to celebrate her 20th birthday. I asked the students to not only notice how the people receiving the act of kindness felt, but how it seemed to make the birthday girl feel to show kindness to others. I explained that even the smallest act of kindness, smiling at someone, showing gratitude, or saying hello, can make a big difference in someone's day. Then, I challenged my 3rd and 4th grade students to take their journals home, and try doing one simple act of kindness every day for a week. Below is an example of just one of the many journal entries I received the following week. I was surprised at how empowering it was for the children to be on the giving end of kindness.

Once we see our children acting kind, it's important to provide the right type of praise. Warning: The "right type" of praise is contrary to what most of us are used to; parents often use the logic that praising positive behaviors will bring about more positive behaviors, which makes complete sense. But, research shows that children respond more generously when their character is praised, rather than their actions. For example, if I see my daughter June share her toys, I would say, "You ARE such a good friend", as opposed to, "It was really nice of you to share your toys." This will make her feel like she IS a good friend, not that she made the choice to be, and has the choice not to be. Several studies have been conducted where children who were praised for their intrinstic character were more generous, and more likely to help, than those who were praised for their actions. In one experiment, researchers Joan E. Grusec and Erica Redler set out to investigate what happens when we commend generous behavior versus generous character. According to Grant, "After 7- and 8-year-olds won marbles and donated some to poor children, the researchers randomly assigned the children to receive different types of praise. For some of the children, they praised the action: “It was good that you gave some of your marbles to those poor children. Yes, that was a nice and helpful thing to do.” For others, they praised the character behind the action: “I guess you’re the kind of person who likes to help others whenever you can. Yes, you are a very nice and helpful person.” A couple of weeks later, when faced with more opportunities to give and share, the children were much more generous after their character had been praised than after their actions had been. Praising their character helped them internalize it as part of their identities".

Finally, and most importantly, when our children inevitably act unkind, or downright mean, our response is crucial. According to Grant, when children cause harm, they usually feel one of two ways: shame or guilt. "Shame is feeling that I am a bad person, whereas guilt it feeling that I have done something bad. Shame makes children feel small and worthless, and they respond either by lashing out at the target or escaping the situation altogether. In contrast, guilt is a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behavior. When children feel guilt, they tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and aim to make it right." According to Dr. Dana Suskind in her book, Thirty Million Words, the language a parent uses in response to an unacceptable behavior is pivotal in gearing the child's sense of self in one direction or the other. If we want to help a child on a path of positive actions, criticizing specific behaviors goes a long way toward producing someone who understands that he or she is "good" and just made a reparable mistake rather than someone who now sees him or herself as "bad" (p. 126). 

Just a couple weeks ago, I had a student (let's call him Johnny) kick one of his friends (we'll call him Lewis) in response to something rude Lewis said. Having just read this research, I responded by saying to him, "Johnny, I have known you for a long time, and I know that you have a good heart." This let him know I still think he is intrinsically good, despite his poor choice. "But," I continued, "psychically harming someone else is never, ever ok, no matter what that person did to you." This evokes the healthy guilt that will (hopefully) build empathy, and encourage him to make things better. Then, I asked, "So, what are you going to do to make this right?" This holds him accountable to mend the relationship. This approach helps children understand that their actions are a reflection of their character, but also assures him that just because he made a bad choice, doesn't mean he is now seen as intrinsically "bad" by the adult(s) in his life. In my experiences using this approach, I have been pleasantly surprised that children do tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and try to make it right, while still feeling loved and supported.

As I said in the first paragraph of this post, I think it's wonderful that we have researchers dedicating their work to behavioral economics so that caregivers can be better equipped with research-based tools to raise children to become more caring, respectful and responsible adults. This leaves me with no excuse not to at least try to raise a happier, kinder and more loving generation of kiddos.