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How to raise kind and helpful children

Baby boy watering plants with grandparents
Credit: iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

If asked as a parent what qualities you would like your children to possess, it is easy to come up with quite a long checklist. Self-confidence, empathy, respect, courage: most parents could continue ad infinitum.

Those who put kindness on the list will find they’re not alone. There is a global movement of sorts happening to try and instil kindness in more of us, including our children.

The coordinated effort began in 1996 when Dr Wataru Mori, a Japanese physician, convened a conference in Tokyo for people who had started kindness movements in their own countries.

The move resulted in World Kindness Day, which now occurs on November 13 each year and often sees schools encouraging families to put kindness front of mind through conscious acts.

Then came Wonder. The bestselling novel by RJ Palacio (Penguin, 2012) wasn’t the first to take kindness into children’s storytelling, but after selling millions of copies it may be one of the most successful.

It’s all a precursor to an issue Dr Thomas Lickona, author of How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain (Penguin, 2018), believes is becoming increasingly important.

"We live in a world where cultural changes have made the work of raising kind, respectful and responsible children harder than ever,” says the international kindness expert.

We make others happy when we treat them kindly, and are happiest ourselves when we do so. It’s the best antidote to bullying in schools. It’s the foundation of a happy home. It’s the heart of a good society.
Dr Thomas Lickona

Dr Lickona cites a political environment that sets terrible examples, a family culture where parents do all the giving, and an unhealthy addiction to screens as just some of the broader problems which mean parents keen to create kind kids, need to be increasingly intentional about the process.

He believes kindness is the core of good character.

“We make others happy when we treat them kindly, and are happiest ourselves when we do so. It’s the best antidote to bullying in schools. It’s the foundation of a happy home.  It’s the heart of a good society,” Dr Lickona says.

Our use of language is an excellent place to begin teaching kindness to our children. Dr Lickona says that by using the language of kindness we convey that the quality is valued and expected. He suggests phrases like:

  • “That was a kind thing to do.”
  • “Would you be kind enough to help your sister tidy up the family room?”
  • “Thank you for your kindness.” 
  • “Can you use kinder words to say that?”
  • “How can you settle this in a kind and peaceful way?”

But teaching our kids kindness goes beyond words. Dr Lickona believes that in a family everyone has to do their part. That means starting early (as early as when they are two years old) to teach our children to be helpful.

“Being helpful is one of the most important ways of being kind,” he says.

Teaching young children to be helpful in the home

One of his favourite examples of teaching young children to be helpful in the home came from a mother of three boys who told him that in their house the children do one chore for each year of their age. 

“Her two-year-old pushes the button to start the dishwasher and puts the pillows in place on the beds. At three, he will also help to set the table. 

"Meanwhile their four-year-old sets the table, vacuums the front hall, and cleans the downstairs sink and tub.  She tells them how much she appreciates their help and they’re very proud of what they do,” Dr Lickona says.

No doubt most parents would be delighted with the above scenario, but what happens if our children simply aren't interested in helping out?  Dr Lickona believes we need to be proactive in explaining how the system works.

“We expect obedience in a cooperative spirit; no complaining, please,” he says. 

Learning respect for self and others

If that sounds unlikely, he says that it may be because qualities such as respect aren’t emphasised as much they should be, replaced by the promotion of qualities like independence instead.

As for respect, this complementary trait should extend well beyond our own home.

“It includes respect for self and others, for our authority as parents, for property, and respect for life at all stages—including for animals and the natural environment that sustains all life. If we don’t, from the earliest years, teach our children to respect us as parents, we’re going to have trouble teaching them anything else,” he says.

The more we consider it, the more obvious it becomes that kindness does not stand alone. It is also intertwined with virtues like giving (a quality that can be taught by showing children how to help those in need), gratitude (a quality that costs nothing but has a large payoff) and courage.

“In some situations, it takes courage to be kind. CS Lewis, author of the much-loved Chronicles of Narnia said, ‘Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point,’ ” Dr Lickona says.

Modelling and teaching good character

But surely, as parents, we can’t have everything. Can we really raise our children to have all the above traits?

“We have to try. That’s because the virtues are interdependent - each needs the others as a ‘supporting cast’,” Dr Lickona says

“As parents, our task of modelling and teaching good character - as small daily opportunities arise - becomes less formidable if we think of the virtues as a continuum.  Most of us possess each of the virtues at least to some degree. 

“Growing in character means making gradual progress in practicing the virtues and curbing our bad habits. Being our best self more of the time. We should tell our kids that we’re all a work in progress.”