If you survey American parents about what they want for their kids, more than 90 percent say one of their top priorities is that their children be caring. This makes sense: Kindness and concern for others are held as moral virtues in nearly every society and every major religion. But when you ask children what their parents want for them, 81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.
Kids learn what’s important to adults not by listening to what we say, but by noticing what gets our attention. And in many developed societies, parents now pay more attention to individual achievement and happiness than anything else. However much we praise kindness and caring, we’re not actually showing our kids that we value these traits.
Kindness appears to be in decline. A rigorous analysis of annual surveys of American college students showed a substantial drop from 1979 to 2009 in empathy and in imagining the perspectives of others. Over this period, students grew less likely to feel concern for people less fortunate than themselves—and less bothered by seeing others treated unfairly.
So what does that look like?
Be kind, caring, and compassionate to your kids and to your spouse, if you are married. It’s easy to get caught in the spiral of referee parenting where all you do is blow the whistle when they get in trouble or stop fights.
Look for opportunities to catch your kids behaving kind or compassionately. Call out that behavior in others in front of your kids and tell them why it impresses you so much.
Speak it into them. I am convinced that one of the reasons I am in radio and have written a couple books is because my mother always told me I would. Our words really do have power when it comes to shaping children into the people they are going to be. One way to do this when they help you with something, even you told them to, say, “You are so helpful” instead of “Thank you for doing this.” Speak a positive statement over them about who they are instead of what they do.
When kids are praised and rewarded for helping they are more likely to do it again.
Quite a bit of evidence suggests that children who help others end up achieving more than those who don’t. Boys who are rated as helpful by their kindergarten teacher earn more money 30 years later. Middle-school students who help, cooperate, and share with their peers also excel—compared with unhelpful classmates, they get better grades and standardized test scores. The eighth-graders with the greatest academic achievement, moreover, are not the ones who got the best marks five years earlier; they’re the ones who were rated most helpful by their third-grade classmates and teachers. And middle schoolers who believe their parents value being helpful, respectful, and kind over excelling academically, attending a good college, and having a successful career perform better in school and are less likely to break rules.