How to Raise Compassionate, Socially-Conscious Kids
After school one day, my three youngest kids and I met a few friends at a local park. Nine-year-old Tyler came running over to tell me he'd found a 20-dollar bill.
"This is my lucky day!" he screamed.
After asking around and not finding the owner, he was happy to keep it. We left the park to run a couple of errands, and as we pulled into the shopping plaza's parking lot, we saw a dad with two children who had a sign that read, "Can you please help us with our rent?"
Tyler asked me if he could give his 20 dollars to the family. I was a bit shocked because he'd been so excited about finding it just an hour before. But as we were leaving the shopping center, I pulled up next to the family. Tyler rolled his car window down and gave his money to the little boy.
When the dad saw how much money Tyler was handing his son, his eyes filled with tears. He lowered his head and said, "Gracias."
I believe that was one of Tyler's proudest moments.
Kindness is compassion in action, and here's the wonderful thing about it: Each act produces waves that extend beyond our consciousness. Tyler's kindness likely changed that family's day in more ways than one. And who knows what kindness it may have sparked in that father or his children? We can't always know the impact of our acts of kindness, but we must trust that they will create a ripple and let that knowledge be its own reward.
For kids, acts of kindness can be as simple as inviting a new classmate to sit at their lunch table or giving a sibling a hug. It may extend to community-based activities, such as volunteering at a food bank, donating clothes or toys to a homeless shelter, or standing up for others and championing causes. More than anything, kindness means paying attention to what someone else might need and then doing something about it.
My friend Anna's stepdaughter is a shining example of this. Along with the typical angst of being a teenager, she was grieving the death of her father, and the entire family was adjusting emotionally and financially. Somehow, despite all this, she found a way to see beyond her own needs. At 16, she had just gotten her first job and was excited about having her own money. The day Anna's stepdaughter received her first paycheck, Anna took her to the bank to set up her account and deposit her check.
A few days later, Anna received a call from her stepdaughter's teacher, and she wondered what was wrong. But the teacher said, "I'm calling to tell you that your daughter arrived at P.E. class today with an extra pair of shoes. She had noticed that one of her fellow students didn't have tennis shoes (or much of anything else), and today she very nonchalantly handed him shoes and five pairs of socks. She made sure the other students didn't see her, but I saw what she did. I kept her after class, and she told me she had started her first job and couldn't wait to get her first check so she could give this student some shoes. I thought you should know."
I'll wait—you can go ahead and get that tissue right now. I will be right here wiping my own eyes. When I asked Anna how that phone call made her feel, she said, "At a time when our family was struggling, my stepdaughter saw a need she felt was greater and filled it. I was so proud of her." That was 10 years ago, and she now works in a hospital setting, continuing to spread love and kindness wherever she sees a need.
Celebrate It At Home
In 2014, a Harvard study found that kids were three times more likely to say that their parents would be prouder of them if they got good grades than if they were caring people in their community. When I saw that statistic, I worried whether I'd successfully communicated my own values to my children, or whether the importance of kindness had gotten lost in all the grades and extracurriculars and homework.
More recently, the Parents Values Study first surveyed parents across the country in 2020 and found that kindness was the most important trait they hoped to cultivate in their children. That was encouraging news, but I still wonder how many parents express their belief in a certain set of values but communicate—perhaps inadvertently—an opposing set of values. It seems that our messages of "Get straight A's" or "Win this race" are often drowning out messages like "Make sure you help someone who needs it" or "Share a smile today."
I invite you to join me in the practice of Social Justice Parenting, which focuses on raising independent, compassionate, and socially conscious children. It is essentially a lifestyle of kindness. According to studies in neuroscience, children feel happier and more connected when they participate in acts of kindness. My family, for example, has a thing we like to do: We pay the bill for the person behind us in line, say at Starbucks or the grocery store. And wow, do my kids get into it! They get so excited and try to run out of the store before the person behind us knows we did it. It fills their hearts with joy.
Kindness fosters a sense of community—and research shows that this sense of belonging increases levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin that helps reduce depressive symptoms. The effects are contagious too: Simply watching someone else perform a good deed can increase one's serotonin. Science proves that kindness has a ripple effect!
As part of their Jewish faith, my friend Penina and her family take part in mitzvahs—individual acts of kindness—such as building Little Free Pantries in our community. Like most cities in the country, there was an increase in food insecurity in our area during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a program at their synagogue, Penina's family built their first pantry box for families who were in need. Their inspiration came from the Little Free Libraries where neighbors take and give gently used books. The Little Free Pantry allows community members to place any nonperishable item inside the pantry and for any person who needs support to take what they need. My heart smiles just thinking about the lives that have been touched by this project.
My friend Marcy and her kids volunteered to make bookshelves to create a library at a day-care facility that supported homeless families with children. When her youngest daughter had her ninth birthday, Marcy bought her a personalized tool set so she could help build the library. After her daughter opened the gift, she looked at her parents incredulously and said, "This is the best present I've ever received!" And by the way, that kindness-giving, tool-loving little girl is now a senior in college majoring in engineering!
- RELATED: 6 Ways to Teach Kids to Be Kind
It Requires Courage
These types of stories touch our hearts because we know that being kind isn't always the easy choice. Did my son want to keep the 20 dollars he found in the park? Probably! Instead, he chose kindness. Anna's stepdaughter could have embarrassed her classmate by giving him a pair of shoes, despite her good intentions. Extending kindness to others means you take a risk of rejection or judgment—but we've all had moments in our lives when we've been glad someone was brave enough to be kind.
My coaching client Ellen, a white woman, confided in me that she wanted to welcome her new neighbor into the community. She would see her neighbor checking the mail or getting groceries out of the car, but she couldn't get herself to make the introduction. Ellen finally admitted that the woman was Black and she was afraid they would have nothing to say to each other, or that the neighbor would think she was being nice only because of racial tensions in the country. I asked her if she would have these same trepidations if the new neighbor were white, and Ellen began to cry. In that moment, she realized that her fear was greater than her kindness. She didn't want that, and she didn't want that to be what she was teaching her children.
A few days later, Ellen saw her neighbor at the mailbox, and she waved and smiled. The neighbor, Donna, walked across the street, introduced herself, and thanked Ellen for saying hello. After chatting for a while, Ellen saw how her courage was a comfort to Donna, who needed to feel welcome in the community. Ellen invited Donna in for coffee, and they have been friends ever since.
Build a Habit
With your help and opportunities to practice, your children can develop the courage to intervene when others need to be lifted up. Learning to be kind is like learning any other skill. My son's coach tells him to shoot 100 free throws every day. The daily repetition builds that skill, and just like with basketball, kids can build their capacity for care. Some acts may be small but mighty, like sharing the last slice of pumpkin pie the day after Thanksgiving (that's a very big deal in my household!), holding the door for the next person, or saying thank you and using the cashier's name at the grocery store. Others can have a wider impact, like standing in allyship with Black Lives Matter or with the LGBTQ+ community. Kindness helps you see others in very human ways, and it feeds off itself and knocks down walls.
I can't begin to tell you the number of conversations I've had with people just because I smiled at them. Sometimes when I smile and say hi to people on the street, my kids say, "Do you know her?" I almost always say no. And then I get, "Oh my gosh, Mom," or eye rolls. But you know what they get from me? You guessed it: a smile. Smiling at others is the simplest act of kindness. It costs you nothing, and it benefits everyone.
What Truly Matters to You
Our second annual Parents Values Study asked questions about every aspect of parent life: your hopes, your challenges, the issues that weigh on your mind, and how this trying time has shifted your priorities.
Talking to Kids About Poverty and Homelessness
"Mom, why is that man pushing that grocery cart full of old things down the street? He needs to go home and take a shower. Why is he so dirty?"
These unexpected questions from her 5-year-old left my coaching client Shelby frozen. She wasn't prepared to answer her daughter, and she certainly wasn't prepared for the stares she got from other customers in the Target parking lot. Embarrassed, she shushed her daughter, grabbed her hand, and quickly got into the car.
You may want to protect your children from the realities of poverty because you think it might make them sad to know people are hungry, hurting, and homeless. But talking about homelessness is a good opportunity to demonstrate empathy and recognition of others' hardships. When your children are young, it's important to answer their questions directly, in an age-appropriate way. You might say, "Some people don't have enough money to pay for a house" or "He doesn't have anyplace to go to shower or to keep all his things" or "He might seem scary, but he's trying to take care of himself the best way he can right now."
Never use a homeless person as an "example" of what could happen to kids if they don't get good grades, go to college, or work hard. Doing so perpetuates misinformation and stereotypes about people living in poverty, and teaches kids that this person is "bad" or deserves their situation.
Children often want to know what they can do to help. You might suggest giving the person a water bottle or a granola bar, or donating food, clothing, or toiletries to nonprofits.
- RELATED: 14 Little Ways to Encourage Kindness
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's November 2021 issue as "The Power of Kindness." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here