Kindness Matters

When someone asks me (usually, it’s my husband) what I wish for our children, my usual and honest answer is, I just want them to be happy and healthy.
Simple, true and it really is what I want for them.

Then, I read this article on The Motherlode, an excellent New York Times parenting blog, and it really struck a chord with me. I have been thinking about this and ruminating over it ever since I read it last week. What the author, Dr.Richard Weissbourd, asserts is that we need to switch our focus in child rearing. Instead of zoning in on our children’s happiness and self-esteem, we need to actively instill morality and kindness.

At first glance, I thought well yeah, of course I want my children to have morals and to treat others with kindness. But, then I thought…do I actively promote and support these behaviors and qualities in my children?

I have to admit, I focus a lot on their happiness and self-esteem. I try to bolster them up and cheer them on. By doing so, am I undermining the development of their sense of morality and ability to empathize and care about others?

As many other parents may feel, I thought that happiness and high self-esteem would naturally beget kindness towards others.

Does it?

It’s a question I have been asking myself all week. There are so many parenting theories, studies, and speculations out there that question almost every aspect parenting. However, this one dug deep and resonated with me.

Being kind to others is certainly something I expect from my children. This article however got me thinking if I actually cultivate this. As the author puts it, “The degree to which parents and children are prioritizing happiness over goodness is troubling”.

In a world that does seem like we put our happiness above all else, I believe he has a valid and important point.

I certainly don’t want to dismiss small acts of inconsideration and send my children the wrong message. No  matter how seemingly inconsequential, our children pick up on these small cues. On the other hand, I’ve always believed that parenting is a process, something we cannot isolate into one moment in time. It really boils down to balance and moderation.

I know, easily said…not always so easily done.

However, now when my husband asks me what I hope for our children, my answer may be a little different. Yes, I want them to be happy, but above all, I want them to be kind and treat others with respect and empathy.

I hope I can achieve this subtle shift in thinking and parenting. In my opinion, it is certainly worth a try.

What do you think? Do you think we focus too much on ensuring that our children are happy? Should we instead focus on kindness and empathy? Can’t we do both?

22 Responses to Kindness Matters
  1. parenting ad absurdum
    April 18, 2011 | 9:50 am

    When asked what I want for my kids (usually by myself ;)) I've always said I want them to be confident and compassionate. I honestly think that if you are truly confident, you have compassion for others – it's a part of really believing in yoursef – it makes you believe in others. And I feel that both of those – feeling good about yourself AND feeling good about others – will lead to happiness. Or that's what I hope for them (and me, really…).

  2. Jessica
    April 18, 2011 | 10:05 am

    Wow, very thought provoking. I guess I always responded with "I want them to be happy" – which I feel comes from being kind and moral. Maybe I'm mixing my messages. I'm trying to be a 'purposeful' parent, and love ideas like this that make me really think about what I'm doing.

  3. AnnaNova
    April 18, 2011 | 10:24 am

    wow, thats a very interesting way of looking at parenting. I agree to it to some extent, but i think that one of the main ways to teach your child kindness is to set an example, and invite the child to participate in "acts' of kindness every day.
    it's not like tying shoelaces, they will learn best by watching and doing what you do.
    also, i dont necessarily think that we forego lessons of kindness in favor of happiness of our children.
    For example, if you are on a play date and your child plays with a toy, and another child wants that toy, too, do you smack the other child so he wouldnt bother yours, so that yours could be happy? chances are, no you dont, you probably encourage your child to share, to play together.
    yes, this is very oversimplified, but we dont always have to teach kindness "on purpose", we also teach it a lot throughout the day without really thinking about it.

  4. angela
    April 18, 2011 | 10:30 am

    This is very thought provoking, and it's actually something I've been thinking about a little bit lately. A & D are getting to the age where I have noticed sharing becoming a big issue, and the other day A told me she wanted D to cry :( At that moment, even though I know she was just frustrated (and three years old!), I became extremely conscious that I might have to be a little more active in my teaching of empathy and compassion than I previously thought.

    In my head, I think I equate happiness and compassion, because I don't think it's possible to be truly happy in a little selfish bubble, but I want to be sure to both model and instill this in my kids.

  5. Dalia - Gen X Mom
    April 18, 2011 | 12:14 pm

    I have always said, "I want him/her to be a good person". Good people are happy people, but are also people who are good in all aspects of their lives, to others and to everything. I do think that many parents today are so caught up in their child being happy that in some way this has created the ME generation. I do believe that empathy and kindness should be more instilled in kids rather than just being happy above all. There is more to it than just having a happy kid.

  6. Laura@OutnumberedMom
    April 18, 2011 | 1:13 pm

    Yes, we can do both. I can't wait to click over and read the article. I teach high schoolers and I often see parents' desire for their kids to "have" or "achieve" what it takes to "be happy," sometimes with little regard to what is good or right. Have you read Raising Happiness by Christine Carter? It adds another element to the discussion…

  7. The Empress
    April 18, 2011 | 1:46 pm

    I say pursue kindness unto others.

    I am so thrilled when I see my children have a heart for those in need.

    I heard my 8 yr old actually say, "I helped him, because I'm kind to others. That's just me."

    *yes* and?
    *fistbump to dad*

  8. Kristin
    April 18, 2011 | 2:55 pm

    We actively try to instill kindness and compassion in our children. There was a lot of 'me, me, me' going on from 2.5-3.5 in our house and we decided to make it a point to talk about how other people feel and what we can do to help.

    Great post!

  9. Betsy at Zen-Mama
    April 18, 2011 | 5:31 pm

    I think people are worried these days that if we only focus on self esteem and confidence, we are creating these self entitled monsters. I think we can do both!! Some kids are born naturally kind. I think kindness is often learned. Kids are naturally egocentric. At our preschool we have "nice Wednesday" where all day we practice giving each other compliments. It often spills over to the other days. You could do this at home, too.

  10. Joey @ Big Teeth and Clouds
    April 18, 2011 | 5:50 pm

    My daughter was born with a lot of empathy. She was an empathetic toddler. It's been easy to foster in her. I'm not sure what I'd do if I had to teach it!

  11. Adriel (The Mommyhood Memos)
    April 18, 2011 | 7:02 pm

    Yes. I believe that kindness and serving and generosity LEAD to happiness. Happiness won't RESULT in kindness, morality or any of the rest of it. Happiness is a byproduct of how you live your life (or not). It is not an aim in-and-of itself. (At least, not a noble one… my opinion. It can often morph into selfishness and self-centeredness.) Further, happiness is often based on circumstances, which have many variables. I want to teach my children to live a full, contented life as they act in kindness, generosity, and serving others. This is the truest way that life will result in deep happiness as opposed to fleeting happiness based on circumstance. Just my opinion…. my strong opinion. :) Thanks for recommending this article. I'm interested to read it.

  12. Liz
    April 18, 2011 | 7:06 pm

    I think we should be able to do both. No reason why we shouldn't at least try.

  13. Cheryl D.
    April 18, 2011 | 10:12 pm

    I think we should do both! I don't think they're mutually exclusive!

  14. Mommy's Paradise
    April 19, 2011 | 4:42 am

    I try to treat others the way I like to be treated myself and that's what I (try to) pass on to my kid. I think my son can only do that if he's happy and has a good self-esteem. I like him to be respected and therefore he needs to learn to respect others too. The same works for being kind to receive kindness from others. In a way I am appealing to his inner self and hope in time he's getting the message.
    I think it all goes together and ends up that we as parents should help our kids grow into 'good' persons, similar to what Dalia mentioned above.

  15. Lexie Loo & Dylan Too
    April 19, 2011 | 5:54 am

    I think we can do both! From the moment we became parents, my husband and I insisted on polite and kind behavior. Our parenting focus was on manners and treating others with kindness and respect. The best way for us to do this was to model appropriate behavior. I do want my kids to be happy, and they are, but I also want them to be good human beings and care about others!

  16. JasmineRJohnson
    April 19, 2011 | 11:49 am

    I definitely think we can do both. As a relatively new mom (I have a two year old), I feel that kindness and empathy are something that I can teach best through my example and him watching how I treat others – I learned this year in my intro to clinical medicine that empathy isn't achieved until first grade for most kids…

    But I still see every day as a possibility for instilling values like kindness, confidence, and self worth – especially when my toddler thinks that just about everything he does is worthy of praise…LOL

    Great post! I'm on my way to become a doctor mom as well, and it's so inspiring to read your blog!

  17. Melinda
    April 19, 2011 | 1:15 pm

    I think we do (I know I'm guilty) of focusing on their happiness too much. I'm learning that THEY ultimately choose their own happiness and that what will make them content and peaceful in the long-term might require me to make them very unhappy in the short term. And that in itself builds character and an empathy for others. Great post, Melissa.

  18. Eat. Live. Laugh. and sometimes shop!
    April 19, 2011 | 2:11 pm

    I certainly want my children to be happy, but feel obligated to balance that with their responsibilities to others. They should not seek happiness at the expense of others, however. I think as with anything balance is best.

  19. blueviolet
    April 19, 2011 | 4:10 pm

    I absolutely think we can do both. Are we really trying to make our kids feel happy or is it actually that we're trying to show how much they're loved?

  20. Shell
    April 19, 2011 | 5:06 pm

    I do think that there is way too much emphasis on having good self-esteem these days. Of course we want that for our kids, but it's become their wants and needs over everything else to accomplish this. Not the way to go at all.

    But, kindness? That is something I can get behind!

  21. Sherri
    April 19, 2011 | 5:19 pm

    I want my kids to lead a life that brings them happiness and is fulfilling…and be healthy, of course. But I really do feel that being empathetic, caring, and having a good moral compass are right up there as being so very important.

    I see lots of kids, some quite young, who really have no empathy for others. Their feelings are more about "what can I get?" and that really bugs me.

    But I do wonder if I've done enough in this area.

  22. Nichole
    April 21, 2011 | 3:30 pm

    We truly strive for both, because I don't believe that they are mutually exclusive.

    We try to teach the connection between the act of kindness and the happiness that results from it. For example, holding a door for someone else (kindness) and the smile and word of thanks in return (happiness).

    Katie loves that feeling of having made someone else happy. She's not yet four, so we still have work to do, though. :)