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A ubiquitous reminder appearing on everything from T-shirts to social media states, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” This seems particularly relevant to youth who, by developmental design, are sorting and sifting their way through a myriad of inputs in deciding “who they want to be.”
Wouldn’t it be great if kindness wound up in the character mix? As my colleague, Dan Michel, director of Brewster Day Camp in Massachusetts, told me, “Kindness and gratitude are two qualities that are increasingly needed in our everyday lives.”
Indeed, the benefits of kindness extend beyond the beneficiaries and back to oneself.
But can it be taught or nurtured?
In a Psychology Today article, Karyn Hall, Ph.D., offers, “Kindness is defined as the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate. Affection, gentleness, warmth, concern, and care are words that are associated with kindness. While kindness has a connotation of meaning someone is naive or weak, that is not the case. Being kind often requires courage and strength. Kindness is an interpersonal skill” (Hall, 2017).
And skills can be developed and refined in others. But could it also be innate?
Hall points to Charles Darwin—perhaps known best for “survival of the fittest”—as positing that we are a profoundly social and caring species.
Evidence can be found in David Fryburg’s “The Science of Kindness: 101.” He says, “While the vast majority (including myself) are not kind to the level of Mother Teresa (or pick your own favorite humanitarian), there is good inside so many people. And because of the pressures of modern life, especially with the torrential flood of negative news, I worried that could make people less kind. All of this could disconnect them from even their own communities or families. That meant people would not be able to enjoy the full potential of human life.
“So how do we change that? How do we help people reconnect to the essence of being human in a quick and non-judgmental way? It made me think that if we could rebalance what people saw we could help inspire them to be even kinder and to be able to see and appreciate kindness” (Fryburg, 2019).
An avid, if amateur, photographer, Fryburg, a physician, and his son, Jesse, co-founded Envision Kindness, a nonprofit “to promote kindness, compassion, and empathy through image-based stories, in the pursuit of a kinder and happier world” (Fryburg, 2018).
Similarly, the Riley’s Way Foundation, a collaborator at the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), “empowers young leaders to use kindness and empathy to create meaningful connections and positive change.” They “envision a future where kind leaders build a better world” (Riley’s Way Foundation, 2019).
Both organizations point to the value of kindness in strengthening relationships.
In addition, for their part, the Fryburgs reveal data suggesting that kind people live longer, sharing, “Kindness embraces a lot of related concepts like gratitude, forgiveness, acting with integrity, social connection, joy, and love. It is key to having a meaningful life.”
Melissa Brodrick, M.Ed., offers in her article “The Heart and Science of Kindness” for Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical School, some “thoughts on kindness—how to give and receive it.” Here is an abbreviated sample of her acquired wisdom.
- Kindness starts with being kind to yourself. Be kind to yourself when you misstep, which happens to everybody. Setting upon ourselves may cause collateral damage, making others the target of the anger or frustration or disappointment that we really feel about ourselves.
- Lead with compassion, follow with kindness. Everyone has challenges, many hidden from sight. If you knew that your coworker delivering the curt response to a question or the snarky critique of a project had recently learned of a serious illness in their family, wouldn’t you cut them some slack? And better yet, might you then want to reach out with support?
- We feel happier when we act in service to others. A recent study reported on how people felt after performing or observing kind acts every day for seven days. Participants were randomly assigned to carry out at least one more kind act than usual for someone close to them, an acquaintance or stranger, or themselves, or to try to actively observe kind acts. Happiness was measured before and after the seven days of kindness. The researchers found that being kind to ourselves or to anyone else—yes, even a stranger—or actively observing kindness around us boosted happiness.
Jennifer Miller, author of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, advocates for teaching children to give, not just receive. She says, “At the most fundamental level, children have a readiness for giving and generosity when parents have demonstrated giving to them through their love, attention and responsiveness to their emotions” (Miller, 2016). She provides a plethora of specific advice, some of which follows.
- Promote a giving mindset by creating family habits of gratitude. Consider how often you get a dose of negativity whether it’s announced on the radio news or by a fellow parent in the pick-up line at school.
- Consider a daily routine in which you might insert grateful thinking. Do you eat breakfast together? Talk about your hopes for the day and what you’re looking forward to. Do you eat dinner together? Express gratitude for the food you have. Do you have a bedtime routine tucking in children at night? Reflect on your happy thoughts from the day.
- Model appreciation for family members. If you want to positively influence other family members’ behaviors whether it’s a child or a partner, recognize the ways they contribute to your family life.
- Engage your child in helping. Consider small ways your child might contribute to the maintenance of your home.
- Extend generosity to strangers. In order for children to learn that they are a part of a greater community, they need a role in contributing to it.
Making a case for kindness. A great New Year’s resolution for us all.
Brodrick, M. (2019). The heart and science of kindness. Harvard Health Blog. Harvard Medical School. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-heart-and-science-of-kindness-2019041816447 (28 Dec. 2019).
Fryburg, D. (2019). The science of kindness: 101. Psychology Today. January 28, 2019. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-kindness/201901/the-science-kindness-101 (28 Dec. 2019).
Fryburg, D. (2018). SOK #1: welcome to science of kindness 101. Envision Kindness. August 16, 2018. http://www.envisionkindness.org/welcome-to-sok/ (28 Dec. 2019).
Hall, K. (2017). The importance of kindness. Psychology Today. December 4, 2017. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pieces-mind/201712/the-importance-kindness (28 Dec. 2019).
Miller, J. (2019). Confident parents, confident kids: raising emotional intelligence in ourselves and our kids – from toddlers to teenagers. Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press. 2019.
Miller, J. (2016). How to hear “Me, Me, Me” less and teach young kids to give. Parent ToolKit. November 24, 2016. NBC News Learn. https://www.parenttoolkit.com/social-and-emotional-development/news/holidays/how-to-hear-me-me-me-less-and-teach-young-kids-to-give (28 Dec. 2019).
Riley’s Way Foundation. (2019). Leading today for a kinder tomorrow. https://www.rileysway.org/ (28 Dec. 2019).