“Oh. My. God,” I said when my daughter held open her hand. Two baby field mice, barely a day old, squirmed in her palm. Eyes closed. Little feet-paws grasping the air.
“That’s exactly what I said,” deadpanned one of her friends peering down at this curious show and tell. The mice looked eerily like human twins on a ultrasound image.
The girls found the two abandoned mice in the sand pit at school. They were swiftly rescued from the oncoming jumpers. When the track meet was over my daughter burrowed a hole in the sand and put them back. I figured they would perish like their mother had. A hawk, maybe.
The next evening she implored me to go back to the high school. The mice were still there, still grasping.
We fetched Pedialyte from the store to be dispensed by the end of a thin paint brush (Thank you, Google). At home she placed the siblings in a small box with a worn sock and set it on a heating pad.
Bradley and Charlotte lasted another day.
All week I’ve been thinking about this little episode. Everyone knew it was a lost cause and said as much. Yet, that didn’t stop her. “I know they will die, Mom. At least I can give them comfort until they do.”
Five Ways to Grow Kindness in Kids
How do we grow kindness in kids? Really, it starts from the inside out.
Create safe spaces. Children develop empathy in caring relationships and in environments that are calm and nurturing. Our human emotional radar systems are finely tuned through our senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. Moreover, we have intuition – an inner voice or 6th sense – which our brains rely on 80% of the time. These are experiences we sense on a pre-conscious level without the filter of cognition or language. Being in tune with our surroundings and each other is the seedbed for growing secure attachments, empathy and insight.
Show and tell. Say ‘I Love You.’ We all have a need for love and belonging. Being loved allows us feel to feel worthy. In turn this heartfelt ‘knowing’ promotes all sorts of positive outcomes in life. Of course, these three little words are easy to say to babies, young children and pets. Yet, it falls out of favor all too fast. We get too busy or too cool. Later, saying ‘I love you’ is fraught with complex meanings, guess work, and romantic blunders. We complicate an easy matter. When it comes down to it, love is all that matters.
Mirror kindness. We are wired to be kind. Our instinct for caring and cooperation is so ingrained that even the youngest of our peeps – 14 month old toddlers – spontaneously show helping behaviors simply for the joy of it. It feels good to be kind! In fact, rewarding children for their kind actions can undermine being kind in the future. Yes, giving a cookie or a badge to a child after a kind act can have an opposite effect. Kids learn it’s the outcome that matters and not the wholehearted effort that was put into the kind act in the first place. Rather, acknowledge a child’s generosity with simple words. “That was so nice of you.” “You have a good heart.” “I’m so glad to have you as a friend.” “You are such a kind person.” Kids feel it when you mean it.
Sing and play. We learn in community. Singing together not only triggers the self soothing system in our bodies, it fosters an experience of being connected to one another and to humanity. Children naturally sing. They make up songs. They intuitively know a song’s power to sooth and connect. After all, lullabies serve just that purpose. Likewise, “play” is engaging in activity for enjoyment, recreation and creativity. Often, play occurs out in nature, which has its own benefits. Children naturally play with one another; but play often gives way to overscheduled activities with specific purposes, goals or achievements. During unstructured play, children learn how to take turns, use their imagination and have fun.
Remember that what you say matters. Words can hurt and words can heal. This is particularly true as children begin to communicate through technology. The speed of communication is so fast that there is often little time to think. A helpful modern family “mantra” is: “Don’t post what you wouldn’t say to a person to his or her face.” Similarly, cultivating a media diet at home (the earlier the better) will go a long way to ameliorate the tsunami of information and media entertainment flooding the digital playground. The immediacy, excitement and drama seen on screens (often negative and alarming) easily seduces children’s attention and can trigger stress and anxiety. Instead, take time to appreciate little things in life and show gratitude. This helps to build prosocial skills. (Speaking of negative discourse in the media, see our post on How to Talk to Your Kids About the 2016 Presidential Election.)
Volunteer. Valuing generosity and helping others in need is one of the most profound ways to cultivate kindness. Not only that, health research shows that people who volunteer have better physical and emotional health. People who volunteer live longer. By helping others, we generate goodwill while at the same time giving ourselves a powerful happiness fix. Being kind triggers the brain’s reward system (just like the toddlers mentioned above). Families who volunteer together foster generosity and build bridges to other people or communities. Such kindness reduces biases toward minority groups, too. Together, families can cultivate compassion and understanding for people, cultures or communities who are different than “us.”
Kindness is simple and sacred.
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