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Instilling Compassion, Kindness in Kids

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Apr 28, 2015

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When I read the story of the three little pigs to my daughter, who was two years old at the time, I noticed a peculiarly uncomfortable look on her face.

“I don’t like this story,” she explained at the end. “I feel sad for the wolf when he lands in the pot of boiling water. It must hurt him a lot. Why don’t the pigs just talk to the wolf so he can say sorry and they all can be friends?”

Later, when I shared this with a friend, she mentioned how even her four-year-old found the pigs’ behaviour towards the wolf cruel as well. Does this mean our brains are wired to kindness and compassion from the very beginning? Dr. Dacher Keltner, a social psychologist and the author of Born to be Good, says yes.

Dr. Keltner says research shows that our ability for caring, play, modesty and reverence is built into our brain, bodies, genes and social practices. Dr. Keltner’s team found that a part of the brain called the Vagus Nerve is responsible for our compassion. His research team found that people who have a highly active Vagus Nerve in a resting state are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism, such as compassion, gratitude, love and happiness. This means that we’re all wired to feel kindness, but to varying degrees. For those who don’t automatically sympathise with the big, bad wolf—can we be taught to feel it more?

While our education system churns out children who have academic skills such as learning, understanding, and memorising, it often isn’t as conducive to instilling important human virtues. That may be because these emotions, gratitude and kindness, are best conveyed experientially, rather than as rote lesson. Research shows that demonstrating compassion to children positively influences their mental wellbeing and adds to their self-esteem, creating happier and more sensitive individuals.

Patty O’Grady, an expert in neuroscience and transformational education, describes how the brain undergoes a level of positive change by a mere experience of kindness. Children and adolescents do not learn about kindness by thinking and talking about it, she says. Rather, they learn kindness by feeling and, then, reproducing it. This possibly explains how an act of kindness by an absolute stranger or a friend fills our hearts with gratitude and creates a ripple effect. The act re-instills our hope and helps us build an attitude of warmth, concern, and motivation for engaging in our own act of kindness. Thus, the concept of ‘paying it forward.’

Little acts of kindness are often born at homes and schools. Our task as parents is to notice, acknowledge, and reinforce them. These behaviours are usually learned through imitation and parental modeling. We need to embody kindness in our own behaviour, in our actions, speech and perspective towards others. Children are perceptive and intuitive enough to pick up others’ kindness. Simple acts such as taking care of a pet, supporting a younger sibling, expressing concern if someone is hurt, hugging a friend who is crying, is often the beginning of this expression.

I personally love the technique of a Happiness Jar to teach kindness: Every night, my family speaks about two events that contributed to our sense of happiness. We then write down these experiences and put them in the jar, to be read again in tough times. This is a very subtle way of teaching children how happiness goes beyond materialistic pleasures; they begin to recognize kindnesses, even if they don’t have the right words for it: One night, my daughter spoke about how she felt happy when a friend checked on her after she had a minor injury in school.

Using storybooks to communicate kindness is a wonderful tool, too. Some of our classic fairy tales can be harsh and cruel at times. So, in my reading sessions, I allow children to change their endings and create stories that emphasise kindness, forgiveness and fun. Some children’s literature, such as Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli, focuses on the power of an act of kindness. Another book, Whoever You Are by Mem Fox, explains how we may be different from the outside, but we all are the same within.

The daily interactions of our most intimate relationships – whether parenthood, friendship, or marriage – have the power to make us kinder. Parents, let’s set an example with our own behaviour and take the first step toward teaching our children not only to receive kindness, but also to give it back.

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Written By Sonali Gupta

Sonali Gupta is a practicing clinical psychologist with 10 years of experience. She conducts workshops to enhance the emotional well-being of couples, parents and children. She can be reached at sonaligupta297@gmail.com. You can find more of Sonali’s thoughts on Twitter (@guptasonali) and on her website, guptasonali.com

  1. Sreeparna Chattopadhyay

    Great article Sonali! I completely agree that kindness cannot be “intellectualized” – moral science lessons are no good, to teach children about kindness much better to encourage them to volunteer or learn by doing. I agree that all children are born with an inherent capacity to do good, to be good. Perhaps it is the adults who need lessons in kindness and compassion to make sure that children retain that capacity for goodness.

  2. Sonali Gupta

    Thanks Sreeparna! I totally agree with your perspective. We as adults need to be role models and encourage positive compassionate behavior. As they say, it is about the survival of the kindest over survival of the fittest.

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