How To Raise Kind Kids

An article published in SantaCruzParent.com on 1/31/19
by Dr. Zachary Roberts
Head of School, Gateway School

I have not yet met a single person who does not want to raise their children to be kind, both now, as we raise them, and also later in life as an adult.

I know many parents who want most of all for their children to experience happiness in life, and many others who wish for their children to have success in their work and activities, and still others who prioritize their children having good friends and loving relationships. All of them also want their children to be kind.

Kindness matters for so many reasons. Research has shown that being kind not only makes other people happy, it also directly benefits us too, in both mood and health. Plus, as we embody our potential most fully when we are kind, we create safer, more welcoming homes and schools.

So how do we nurture our children’s innate capacity to be kind and good in today’s complex world? We face vast challenges from a toxic political culture that vilifies and demonizes political opponents; a generational culture of entitlement that spoils children instead of setting expectations and holding them accountable; and a hyper-sexualized, consumer-driven media that places value on looks and materialism, rather than heart-centered connection.

Though television can introduce many problems, it also holds great possibility and promise for teaching children to be kind, perhaps best personified by the work of Fred Rogers. A new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, chronicles his life’s work; for over thirty years, in his beloved television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred and his cast of puppets and friends spoke directly to young children in a simple, direct fashion, while modelling kindness, creativity, and compassion.  Mr. Rogers’ career presented a coherent, loving view about how we should best speak to children about important matters and how television could be used as a positive force in our society.

Although we can see kindness in action, it is much more than a behavior; it is an inner attitude and a concern for another’s happiness that motivates those actions.  Though there may not be a comparable show on television today for our children (though some shows like Wonder Pets and Octonauts contain elements), in his 2018 book How To Raise Kind Kids, Thomas Lickona gives six concrete suggestions for how families can raise kind kids:

  1. Make character a top priority in your family.
  2. Show your children you love them through affirmation and affection, together time, and meaningful communication.
  3. Exercise your authority wisely: be authoritative, not authoritarian or permissive.
  4. Give your kids a voice and responsibility in the family.
  5. Extend compassion beyond the family, and give your children the experience of helping non-family members.
  6. Foster a noble vision of life — a belief in something bigger than themselves, and the desire to use their gifts to make a positive difference in the world.

Lickona’s book covers many other essential topics in raising children to be kind, including virtues and respect, discipline, family meetings, getting control of screens, developing good habits. There’s also a chapter that speaks directly to Mr. Roger’s career, which is how to talk about things that matter.

As partners in parenting and child-rearing, teachers and schools also play a critical role in helping children learn to be kind, compassion and inclusive. Children have moral lives from the very beginning, with the innate capacity for kindness as well as cruelty; schools are experimental laboratories where children have the opportunity to make mistakes, recover and do the repair work essential to their healthy moral development. Schools that contribute to the development of kindness will regularly teach children to be courteous and caring; they will have a coordinated approach to teaching character, emotional intelligence, and social-emotional learning; they will integrate cooperative learning into their instructional practices, because interdependency is as important as autonomy; and they will find appropriate ways to listen to and include student voices. As Lickona writes,

“If your children can be in a kind, respectful, character-building school environment for the many hours they’re not with you, then what you’re doing at home will be honored and supported. That will be a blessing for your children and for you.”

Feeling happy because we’ve made someone else happy is the essence of kindness. And it would make me very happy to have you join us at a free screening and conversation of Won’t You be My Neighbor on Tuesday, February 5th at 6:00pm. Childcare is free, and will be provided by the After School Staff at Gateway School. Let’s raise the children of Santa Cruz to value kindness in thought and action.