July 05, 2023
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
After the mayhem of summer exams, Duke of Edinburgh expeditions to the Peak District and countless hours spent with teen friends on the Xbox, my 16 year old had the opportunity to do something completely different last weekend: care for an infant.
This infant (utterly adorable) was thirteen weeks old and my teen immediately commented on his size. He couldn’t believe how small, yet how heavy! He couldn’t believe how soft his skin was or how tight his grip could be. He was mesmerised. To my surprise, as the rest of the adults were talking, my burly teen lay on the play mat with the baby and just stared at him, and the baby gurgled back. He experimented with the toys on the play mat and discovered that the baby liked a particular noise, so repeated it again and again. I thought that when nappy time arrived, my teen would make a swift departure, but instead he took the time to distract the baby and help his mother. He was kind, thoughtful, intuitive and instantly paternal. We set off on a walk and he pushed the pram, paying particular attention to avoiding cobblestones that might jolt the baby too much. He was careful crossing the road and asked if the baby was too hot. I was deeply impressed and happily considered that, one day, he would be ok, a good dad, a caring parent.
I reflected on how important opportunities to be kind are, particularly for teens used to the physical jostling, banter and competition that occurs so readily within their peer groups. Being in the company of someone so vulnerable as an infant can draw out the best in us. We are forced to slow down, mindfully engage and really tune into another’s feelings and needs. We can see our own strength and power reflected in their vulnerability. It encourages us to reflect on our own story, development and how others may have interacted with us and cared for us in the same way.
How can we as parents proactively encourage more encounters like this? Can we actively promote opportunities for our teens to ‘be more vulnerable’ among those more vulnerable than ourselves? Can they help out at the local nursing home or visit an elderly neighbour? Can they feed the neighbour’s pet while they are away? Can they babysit or mind a younger cousin? Any and all opportunities to discover those aspects of ourselves that demand a soft, intuitive, kind and caring manner are ideal.
Turns out, little acts of kindness or altruism go a very long way, not just for the recipient, but also for the giver and this is something that research has explored.
Research shows that acts of kindness have some far reaching and perhaps unexpected consequences. Kindness helps to build smoother relationships, improves physical health and wellbeing, cultivates positive emotions in others, makes us feel happier, can have a beneficial impact on academic motivation and achievement, and boosts self-esteem. Studies have shown that kindness is contagious and that, driven by feelings of gratitude and elevation, people who receive help from strangers are more likely to help others in the future. Several studies have also found that kindness is linked to the development of something that experts call ’empathic orientation’. In simple terms, this refers to a concern for the feelings of those around us and a consideration and awareness of the impact our own actions might have on others.
A year or so ago, I interviewed Professor Robin Banerjee, an expert in children’s social and emotional functioning. Throughout our discussion, he repeatedly stressed the importance of teaching young people that a significant part of becoming a successful person is looking outwards and really focusing on the beneficial impact that we can have on others. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating; kindness and compassion are everyday habits that we should all be actively striving to cultivate. Empathetic skills can be taught and valued, and we can model them to our children every day within family life.
Encouraging children to think about ways that they can show kindness in a wider, societal sense, is a great way to instil altruistic thinking at a young age. In family life, we can talk about causes that we feel passionate about and let our children see us giving to others. If you are able, help out a neighbour in need or pop a tin in the food bank bin at the supermarket. You might create some new family traditions around acts of kindness and charity and cultivate a spirit of philanthropy by talking to children about the things that they care about. Perhaps you could have a family ‘giving’ jar, which you all contribute to, and then decide together on where you’d like to donate the proceeds.
The Charities Aid Foundation has a search function which can help you to find charities that are local to you and match their interests. If your teen is interested in volunteering this summer, there are various websites to check out. The Red Cross has various opportunities for young people, Volunteer Now is a useful site for my Northern Irish readers and the Duke of Edinburgh website contains a list of great volunteering ideas and opportunities. When children and teens get involved in a fundraising activity, help a neighbour or simply do something nice for a sibling or friend, they are making a real difference. At home, make sure that these acts of kindness are noticed and valued.
It’s worth considering whether we explicitly praise our children when they consider someone else, offer to help out, or make another person feel happier or good about themselves? Do we applaud them when they look beyond their own needs and wants to think about those of others? We often ask our children how they got on at school, but how often do we ask if they were kind? Or if they noticed someone else doing something kind? If they tell a story about a classmate being ‘annoying’, do we nudge them towards compassion about why that child might have been behaving in a challenging way, or do we respond in a way that might promote exclusion?
In 2021, I interviewed wellbeing scientist, Professor Jess Datu. He commented that he sees a wide range of opportunities for schools to adopt kindness enhancing exercises into the wider curriculum.
I recall him remarking that, “We don’t need to think too deeply to kickstart these creative initiatives” and noting that many kindness-boosting classroom interventions are both simple and cheap to implement.
During our discussion, he recommended that schools could consider positive peer reporting schemes, where pupils are encouraged to let a staff member know when any of their peers have been kind. He suggested having a kindness box where students are able drop a note each time they notice a kind act and actively incentivising kindness with rewards, such as kindness points. It takes a little imagination, but he also pointed out that integrating kindness-promoting activities into the formal curriculum is also effective and that kindness could be a theme for writing within English lessons, or that children could examine a book where compassion is a key topic, prompting reflections on what kindness is and how to be kind. He even had ideas for how the topic of kindness could be interwoven with maths, proposing that children could be asked to consider how kind they are out of 10, collate data from the whole class and assess the average ‘kindness score’.
All school staff have a role to play in modelling kindness to pupils. When children witness small acts of kindness from the adults around them, it creates wider ripples of kindness and compassion. Making sure that kindness is heavily valued and promoted at school can influence interactions between peers and may help to dilute some of the ‘relational aggression’ that is all too common between classmates, particularly at secondary school. Relational aggression (sometimes known as social aggression) is a type of bullying that can often be subtle and hard to recognise. It could involve giving someone the silent treatment, eye-rolling, purposefully embarrassing a friend, spreading rumours, excluding someone or undermining a peer’s achievements. It can take on many forms and is anything but kind.
As we approach the end of one school year and begin looking ahead to a new one, we have a good opportunity to consider what our family values are around kindness and how we treat other people. Making a game of stepping into someone else’s shoes can be a fun and engaging way to nudge our children to think about the feelings of others and whether their own behaviour is always kind. You might say, “Imagine, it’s your first day at school. How does it feel? How do you hope that the other children in the class might act?” Or, “Pretend you have heard other children talking about you and being unkind. How would that make you feel?” You get the idea. It’s a good opportunity to encourage them (and us) to be honest. Have they ever been tempted to behave in any of these ways? Have you? If yes, can we think about why? Were they trying to be funny? Did they feel a bit jealous? Did they just not think about the impact on the other person? The shoe game is a useful exercise for us all; adults and children alike, and explicitly asking children to consider someone else’s perspective is a simple way to help keep unkindness in check.
Teachers dealing with unkindness between peers might be helped by some tips given to me by friendship expert, Tanya Manchanda. She advises that school staff should ensure that all pupils understand the nature of relational aggression and the types of behaviour it might involve, and that there are clear rules and consequences for those who engage in it. When incidents do occur, best practice is to listen to both ‘sides’, validating the feelings of the student who is being victimised and encouraging them to seek social support from other friends or people they are close to. Address the behaviour of the perpetrator by focusing on changing their behaviour, rather than punishment. You might say, “I’m concerned about the way you are treating your friend. Let’s talk about how we can make sure everyone is treating each other with respect.”
Encourage positive conflict resolution, perhaps through a facilitated conversation where both students are invited to talk to each other about their feelings, or using other conflict resolution techniques and promote collaborative problem-solving. CRESST (Conflict Resolution for Young People by Young People) has some great free resources to help both primary and secondary-aged children become more effective at managing conflict and also provides peer mediation training packages for schools.
Tanya notes how important it is to provide guidance and support to both the victim and the perpetrator. This could involve helping the victim to develop coping strategies and providing the perpetrator with resources to help them learn to communicate more effectively and kindly. If someone isn’t being treated kindly by a friend, remind them that they don’t have to stick to the same social group. They have choice and agency and it’s ok to switch if they want to!
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you’re looking for more ideas and information on the topic of kindness, have a look at our library. It features a whole section of resources devoted to promoting kindness, including family fundraising ideas, a kindness passport (great for use in the classroom), our 100 acts of kindness activity (which includes prompts for kindness online) and a list of books that can help to cultivate kindness and empathy. Over the last couple of years, we’ve interviewed two experts (Dr Jess Datu and Professor Robin Banerjee) about the power of kindness, and you can listen to both in the Tooled Up library. You can also help your children to notice their own kindness by encouraging them to complete our self-esteem building activity, What Makes You You?
If you are interested in promoting kindness within peer groups, check out our activity which encourages you and your teen to consider different types of relational aggression and reflect on your family values when it comes to kindness and how to treat others. We’re working on a simplified version for younger children which will be coming to the library soon. You’ll also find a quiz for children and teens which helps them reflect on the fact that there is a ‘time and a place’ for saying some of the things that might pop into their heads, and nudges them to develop a level of empathy for the feelings of others.