The Art of Raising Kind Kids

We all want our children to be kind, and to grow up to be even kinder. As any parent knows, monitoring unkind behavior is in most cases a practical impossibility, particularly as children grow—and it’s not an effective way to to build a kindness reflex in anyone. Our go-to parenting expert Robin Berman, M.D. is just so wise on this topic—her book Permission to Parent is a goop bible, and we’ve turned to her for advice on everything from narcissism to the misguided desire of wanting our kids to be happy. According to Berman, kindness isn’t something we’re born with—it’s something we’re taught. Below, her advice for focusing kids (and parents) on what really matters, and consistently parenting for—and with—kindness.

Raising Kind Kids

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear…
You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
before you are six or seven or eight,
to hate all of the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

These words, written in 1949 by Rodgers and Hammerstein, are still vital and relevant in 2017.

The flip side of “you’ve got to be taught to hate” is, of course, that you have to be taught to love, to be respectful, and to be kind to others. The world needs that kind of teaching now more than ever, but over the last decade, we parents have lost our way. For a Harvard study, 10,000 kids were asked to rank kindness, personal happiness, and achievement in order of importance. Not only did they rank achievement first, with personal happiness in second, and kindness trailing behind, but they also believed their parents would think achievement trumps all.

Are we focused on the wrong things? Grades and athletic/artistic accomplishments matter, but most of us would agree raising kind kids matters more. If we spend our days drilling math facts and chauffeuring our kids to “enrichment activities,” it begs the question: What are we prioritizing most—and why? I sat next to a fabulous woman on a plane who told me she taught both her kids and grandkids compassion with the phrase, “ABK, all the way, every day.” ABK stands for Always Be Kind.

Chances are you’re not raising the next Harvard valedictorian or NBA superstar, yet we are under the delusion that by spending our children’s childhoods on tutors and coaches, we might beat the odds, while we don’t spend enough time on the key qualities that we can foster. There are three meaningful things you can shape as parents: your child’s connection to you, their character, and their ability to act with kindness. But loving kindness is a skill that has to be talked up and practiced. Ask your kids at the dinner table: “What did you do today that was kind?” “What are you grateful for?” That sends a very different message than, “What did you get on your test?”

Are you gossiping at the dinner table? How do we model kindness in our tone and language at home? How do we talk to our spouse, our children, and ourselves? Are we modeling self-compassion?

The School of Love

Home is ideally the school of love. We begin to understand our self-worth by the way we are treated. The tone and language you use in your home, no matter if it’s directed at your partner, your kids, or yourself, becomes the soundtrack in your child’s head. Kids have bionic ears and eyes: They see and hear everything. So phrases like, “bad boy,” or “you’re lazy,” or my all-time least favorite, “You should be ashamed of yourself!” need replacing. In their place, phrases like, “We all make mistakes. What did you learn from it?” “If you could push rewind, what would you do differently next time?” can be game-changing.

The power of mindful words can’t be overstated. Words can inflame or inspire. If, for example, you want to teach your child not to interrupt, you can say, “Wait for the pause. There will be a pause in the conversation.” This is obviously more effective than barking: “Don’t interrupt,” “Be quiet”, or, worse, “Shut up.” Both teach manners, but one approach is more heart-centered and loving. The diplomacy you teach will allow your kids to be heard in the future. It also feeds a gentler narrative in their head.

As Stephen Sondheim wisely warns:

Careful the things you say, children will listen.
Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell,
What do you leave to your kids when you’re dead?
Only whatever you put in their head.

A Kindness Muscle Short List

Take a breath before you instruct your kids.
Empathize with your child, as empathy diffuses big emotions. As parents, we often jump right into correcting our kids: ”Give that toy back,” versus “I can see you both want that toy.” Connect before you correct. Shame and punishment do not equal discipline; in fact, the secret sauce of parenting is to discipline ourselves before we discipline our children. Oftentimes, it’s not the child that needs the time-out, it’s the parents. I once heard someone say, ”Sometimes my mom was a mom, sometimes she was a monster. I guess I was raised by a Momster.” We don’t want to be remembered as Momsters. Rage and punishment may control behavior in the short run, and kids who are scared of their parents are often well-behaved. But I can assure you that intimidation as a means of control chips away at the foundation of a child’s self-esteem and paves the way for defenses to be built. The child’s real self might go underground. My job as a psychiatrist is to chisel away at those defenses and re-parent in a safer way. So please help put me out of business: Let’s not fire verbal arrows that make our kids build walls around their hearts.

Own your mistakes.
We are human, and there is a high degree of human error in parenting. At times, parenting can be very messy. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, so when we yell at our kids or say the wrong thing, we should apologize: “Can I have a Mommy do-over?” Tell them what you would do differently if you could push rewind. It models that you are willing to take responsibility for your mistakes, which is both kind and respectful, and it also inspires trust. Think of a partner who can admit when they are wrong and apologize, instead of being defensive; it is quite an attractive quality.

Talk up the importance of kindness and character.
When you are going over your daughter’s report card with her, first look at the sections on character and cooperation. Keep reinforcing that message by giving your child a verbal high five when they share with a sibling, help a friend, or express gratitude. When your kid says, “Thank you for driving me to soccer,” then reply, “Thank you for saying that—it means so much to me.” And if you’re thinking to yourself that your child would never do that, then it’s time to playfully and lovingly remind them that they are forgetting something as they’re about to slam the car door. The goal is to keep building a stronger kindness/gratitude muscle.

Stop caring so much about winning.
Instead of screaming aggressively from the sidelines of seven-year-old soccer games, emphasize the importance of teamwork and sportsmanship. A mother told me about her nine-year-old son throwing his racket during tennis tournaments. She calmly warned him that if he did this a third time, he would have to forfeit the match. When he threw the racket again, she followed through on her promise—and the lesson sank in. He went on to win both his high school and college tennis team sportsmanship awards. If you value character and kindness, then live those values out loud for your kids.

Minimize the consumption of digital negativity.
Parents always ask me why anxiety has skyrocketed in children. I think in part it is because of parental hovering and early academic/athletic pressure, coupled with negative media. More than ever, we are bombarded with images that decrease empathy and increase fear in our children. In this sea of negativity, we have trailers with bondage for Fifty Shades Darker that are seen by our children before they have had their first kiss. News of school shootings and terrorist attacks are ubiquitous. How are we to raise compassionate and hopeful kids? We have to play active defense and make sure we’re exposing our children to content that has a positive moral arc.

The good news is that having kids watch compassion and kindness in action has beneficial brain effects. Another Harvard study tracked the serotonin levels (the chemical found in Prozac and other antidepressants) of students watching a video of Mother Teresa caring for poor people in Calcutta, and found increased levels of serotonin in their saliva. So what do we learn from this study? That what you watch matters. In short, kindness is good for your health. In addition to increasing serotonin, it also increases oxytocin—a hormone that fosters bonding and connection, and lowers blood pressure. Kindness bathes us in dopamine, which enhances mood and motivation.

Teach your kids compassion, and to look outward, not inward.
Father Gregory Boyle says “Compassion is always about a shift from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, of true kinship, where all margins get erased.” Unfortunately, selfie culture is not helping our children grow their highest or happiest selves. Studies show that the more we connect to others, the happier we are. So we need to make sure we are spending more time looking out, rather than looking at our own selfies. Look out and feel kinship and compassion for other people. In this divided time in our history, it is more important than ever to actively model kindness. Model kindness by giving up our seat on the train to a person who needs it. Mentor a child. Wait patiently at Starbucks without eye-rolling the barista, or refrain from aggressively honking at a slow driver. Do we bring food to a neighbor who is sick, or volunteer with our kids at a soup kitchen? Do we ask ourselves what we can do for others? As Arthur Ashe reminds us, ”From what we get, we can make a living; what we give, however, makes a life.”

I remember a Valentine’s Day card my son gave me when he was in kindergarten: “I love you until the sky stops. I hope the whole earth has love.”

Me too.