How to raise kind children, according to Harvard researchers

What kind of values are you trying to instill in your children? Is kindness one of them?

Most parents would say yes, but according to stats from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, we’re not doing a very good job at it. The research indicates kids are going astray when it comes to kindness, and adults are to blame for sending some mixed messages.

Luckily, the experts at the Ivy League institution have some ideas about how we can get the next generation back on track so they can become the caring adults of tomorrow.

Between 2013 and 2014, as part of Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, researchers surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students across the nation. They found that no matter what race, class or culture the kids identified with, the majority of the students surveyed valued their own personal success and happiness way more than that of others.

Why do kids value their own success so much more than things like caring and fairness? Well, apparently, mom and dad told them to.

Eighty percent of the 10,000 students said their parents taught them that their own happiness and high achievement were more important than caring for others. (So much for sharing is caring.)

The folks at Harvard say that valuing your own ambition is obviously a good thing (in moderation) in today’s competitive world, but prioritizing it so much more than ethical values like kindness, caring and fairness makes kids more likely to be cruel, disrespectful and dishonest.

So how do we fix this? Here’s Harvard’s four-step plan for raising kinder kids.

1. Help them practice being nice

Giving kids daily opportunities to practice caring and kind acts makes helps make ethical behavior second nature. They could help you with chores, help a friend with homework or work on a project to help homelessness.

All those tasks would help a child flex their empathy muscles. The key is to increase the challenges over time so your child can develop a stronger capacity for caregiving as they grow.

2. Help them see multiple perspectives

The researchers want kids to “zoom in” and listen closely to the people around them, but also see the bigger picture. “By zooming out and taking multiple perspectives, including the perspectives of those who are too often invisible (such as the new kid in class, someone who doesn’t speak their language, or the school custodian), young people expand their circle of concern and become able to consider the justice of their communities and society," the study’s authors’ wrote.

3. Model kindness

Our kids are watching, so if we want them to be kinder, it’s something we should try to cultivate in ourselves. The Harvard team suggests parents make an effort to widen our circles of concern, and deepen our understanding of issues of fairness and justice.

4. Teach kids to cope with destructive feelings

According to the researchers, the ability to care about others can be overwhelmed by a kid’s feelings of anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings. They suggest we teach our kids teach that while all feelings are okay to feel, some ways of dealing with them are not helpful, or kind (for example, “Hitting your classmate might make you happy, but it won’t make them happy and isn’t very kind. Counting to 10 and talking about why you’re mad is more productive than hitting.”)

While the folks at Harvard are concerned that so many kids are being taught to value their own happiness above all, they were also encouraged by the students who do prioritize caring and kindness. One of the students surveyed wrote “People should always put others before themselves and focus on contributing something to the world that will improve life for future generations.”

If we follow the advice of Harvard researchers, the world will see more kids that think like that, and that’s what future generations need.

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