Compassion is one of the most important lessons a caregiver can teach children, but it can be a little tough with the world we live in. A survey conducted by Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the beloved Sesame Street, shows that 70 percent of parents and 86 percent of teachers “often worry that the world is an unkind place for children.” Though the high marks are worrisome, the survey also provides hope for the direction in which caregivers aim to take the next generation: 81 percent of parents and 84 percent of teachers agree that “people need to be responsible for helping their own children and families and other people in society.”
As children grow and learn more about the world they inhabit, we hope they become compassionate and empathetic toward everyone, without the awful –isms and –phobias of society. Aside from making the world a better place, there are other reasons for kids to be kind—it is human nature. Research shows that humans are inherently good and have an instinct to be cooperative. This is great news for humanity, but sometimes children still need a little nudge in the right direction to fulfill this human need.
Raising children to become thoughtful and generous humanitarians may seem like a tall order. How can adults expect that from children when it is not always easy for adults themselves to be kind? It is, however, important to remember that being kind is a choice. As with other choice-based behaviors, kindness can be learned and internalized. Ages 4-7 is a critical learning period for children, so lessons on how to be kind should start as soon as possible and be consistently reinforced as they grow.
One way to demonstrate the importance of kindness is through modeling. According to Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory, people internalize behaviors by observing others perform those same behaviors. In short, children often imitate adults. With this in mind, adults can model kind behaviors that align with the lessons they teach children; thus, children can internalize the information and perform the same behaviors themselves. Consistency between the lessons being taught and one’s own behavior will help a child understand how to truly be kind in practice.
Another way to encourage kind behavior in children is to volunteer for the community together. There are many ways to get involved! Sit down with children and discuss the impact of each option and which avenue to take. Some examples include volunteering at an animal shelter, starting a canned-food drive, or picking up trash at the beach. Even gathering clothes and items around the house and donating them to a charitable cause can have a huge impact on those who need it—and inspire children to continue doing good deeds from the kindness of their hearts.
It is important to remember that no act of kindness is too small. This lesson is apparent in A Circle of Friends, where one child’s generous act of sharing his snack with a homeless man sparks a chain reaction of caring. An action that may seem miniscule to one person can mean the world to another.
Being kind is not always easy, especially when one is told to do otherwise. In Hunter and His Dog, a hunter takes his new dog on a hunting trip. However, upon seeing injured birds, the dog feels compassion and takes them away from the hunter to heal. In going against the hunter’s orders and instead choosing to be kind and empathetic, the dog saves the birds’ lives.
During this season of giving, what acts of kindness can you take to help someone in need?