Teaching kindness as a core value
Figuring out where kindness ranks on the to-do list
I am often asked by parents: “Does your camp have nice kids?” “Are there nice kids in that cabin?”
Both of which questions make me sad. Who am I to play God and decide whether a child is nice or not nice? Who am I to sit in judgment of a child that somebody loves?
It’s not only an unkindness to label kids, it’s also inaccurate because the judgment fails to take into account that children change. It’s in the nature of childhood and growing up.
Many factors influence how children change. Traumas — such as divorce or death of a loved one — are such profound stressors that they can bring out negative energy, anger and hostility.
Happy events — like getting into the school of their choice or making desired new friends — can grow confidence and selfesteem and make kids more relaxed and positive.
But those kinds of events are mostly outside of our locus of control. What interests me are the factors we can control. Can we build nice kids? If yes, how? Or do we just have to wait and hope? Can we require kids to be nice? Of course we can. At camp we do it every day all day and we know it works because we ask about it. Anyone can do this, it’s pretty simple.
We build nice kids first and foremost by valuing it pretty much above all else, conscious or unaware.
Every family, every school, every community has values — whether articulated or silent. It starts with stating one’s values. If you say out loud that inclusion, respect and caring matter to you, those words become your values, become your road map as a parent. They become the moral compass that sets your course, the signposts along the way. But we all know schools, governments ad families that have one set of values in the PR material (handbooks, posters and party chat) and the real ones in the real world.
Step two requires living the values you espouse. Treating others that way so your kids can see nice in action, how possible it is to do and the rewards it reaps.
Step three is requiring nice of kids.
It’s too easy for us to let it go when kids aren’t caring or inclusive or respectful. We let it go because we’re in a hurry, they have to be somewhere, we have to be somewhere, the homework needs doing, and the dinner needs cooking.
The problem is that every time we let it go, we communicate our values loud and clear — and that nice isn’t at the top of the list. Bingo, we’re not building nice kids.
When we sit down and talk about what wasn’t nice and ask them why that happened, we telegraph our values clearly. And they get it.
A family, as a small community with its own values, is a petri dish for teaching nice — or not. This is a question of standards.
In my experience children mostly like to meet the standards that are set for them. A lot of us parents these days want to breed hockey stars and jazz dancers and academic winners. We may say we don’t, but if you analyze the stuff we prioritize for our kids, we do. How high on the list is nice? Does kindness rank above good grades? Or below it, and after extracurriculars?
This matters, because you can talk a good game about kindness, but unless the community you lead has nice near the top of its agenda, you’re not requiring it.
Kids are observant. They know our true values by the walk we walk, not by the talk we talk. And they will follow us there, as kids do.
Is it possible to build nice kids? Or do we just have to wait and hope?