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Harvard Researchers Focus on Teaching Children to be Kind

Internet-based smears and cruel put downs have exponentially increased  the pervasiveness and  toxicity of bullying  to the point of psychologically  and  sometimes even life-threatening cruelty.   To counter this very dangerous trend, Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education, has developed the   Making Caring Common project to help teach kids to be kind.    With the perils of internet bullying  widely known, one would think that parents today are teaching children how to empathize and be kind more than ever.   Unfortunately, Dr. Weissbourd’s findings suggest otherwise.   80% of the children and adolescent interviewees in his research said  “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.”     Parents today feel an ever-increasing pressure to do whatever they can to help their children stay the right side of widening gaps in income disparity, so the interviewees responses are not surprising.   It does, however, make it that much harder for children to learn the dangers of trying to win at all costs.

Any parent who has had the pain of witnessing  their child become a victim of peer cruelty has learned a very fundamental truth—children are not naturally moral or kind—they become so based on how they are raised.  Weissbourd and his cohorts have come up with recommendations about how to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. “(Children) need adults who will help them become caring, respectful, and responsible for their communities at every stage of their childhood,” the researchers write.   As a key component to the Making Caring Common project, these Harvard researchers have come up with 5 things that can teach children the value of kindness.  They are:

  1. 1. Make caring for others a priority – A big part of that is holding children to high ethical expectations, such as honoring their commitments, even if it makes them unhappy. For example, before kids quit a sports team, band, or a friendship, we should ask them to consider their obligations to the group or the friend and encourage them to work out problems before quitting.   Insist that your older children always address others respectfully, even when they’re tired, distracted, or angry.  For children of all ages, ask teachers whether your children are good community members at school.  When parents ask these kinds of questions,  kids see what family values are most important very clearly.
  2. 2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude – Learning to be caring is like learning to play a sport or an instrument. Daily repetition—whether it’s a helping a friend with homework, pitching in around the house, or having a classroom job—make caring second nature and develop and hone youth’s care giving capacities. Learning gratitude similarly involves regularly practice.  Don’t reward your child for every act of helpfulness—teach them that being helpful and grateful are normal, and not something that needs to be regularly praised.  Equally important, talk to your child about caring and uncaring acts they see on television and about acts of justice and injustice they might witness or hear about in the news.   Regular  conversations like this are often more powerful than direct teaching.
  3. 3. Expand your child’s circle of concern – Almost all children care about a small circle of their families and friends. Our challenge is help our children learn to care about someone outside that circle, such as the new kid in class, someone who doesn’t speak their language, the school custodian, or someone who lives in a distant country.   Especially in our more global world, children need to develop concern for people who live in very different cultures and communities than their own.   Encourage children to care for those who are vulnerable. Give children some simple ideas for stepping into the “caring and courage zone,” like comforting a classmate who was teased.  Use a newspaper or TV story to encourage your child to think about hardships faced by children in another country
  4. 4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor – Parents need to practice honesty, fairness, and caring themselves. But it doesn’t mean being perfect all the time. For our children to respect and trust us, we need to acknowledge our mistakes and flaws. We also need to respect children’s thinking and listen to their perspectives, demonstrating to them how we want them to engage others.
  5. 5. Guide children in managing destructive feelings – We need to teach children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways. One simple but effective strategy recommended by the Making Caring Common researchers is to  teach your kids to calm down: ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them with her. After a while she’ll start to do it on her own so that she can express her feelings in a helpful and appropriate way.

Worldwide, man’s capacity for cruelty may arguably be greater on a global scale than at any time since the end of World War II.   The most important message of Dr. Weisssboud and his fellow researchers is that, if parents emphasize “winning” over kindness, our children will not possess the requisite skills and values to counter this dangerous trend.   It is a warning that we need to all take to heart.


Robert Hoyt, Ph.D.
Allied Health Professionals LLC

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