On Teaching My Kids to 'Be Nice'

children gardenMy 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter are both good students, but I’ll be honest: I am just as proud -- maybe even more -- when I accidentally drop a plate in the kitchen and they both come running: "Are you okay? What can we do to help?"

See, when psychologists at Harvard Graduate School of Education surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students across the country about what values were most important to them, 80 percent chose happiness or high achievement. Nothing wrong with that ... except only 20 percent believed "caring for others" was a priority. Even more disheartening: four out of five kids said their parents felt the same way. 


It’s sweet to think that if we love our kids enough, that in and of itself will make them compassionate, and to a point, it’s true. But just like playing piano, being kind is something that needs to be taught -- and practiced, practiced, practiced.

More from CafeMom: How to Raise a Polite Kid: 10 Manners to Teach Them Now

As parents, we have plenty of opportunities to bring in these lessons. Saying "please" and "thank you," allowing someone struggling with a heavy bag of groceries to exit a subway first, even picking up a piece of trash from the ground and throwing it away. While most parents teach the first by rote ("What do we say? Say thank you"), it’s easy to get so wrapped up in our daily grind that we think, Eh, someone else can do it. Or truthfully, What does it matter? I’ll never see that person again.

Sometimes, it feels like teaching my kids to be nice is a losing battle. If they can’t share the freaking bathroom for two minutes, how on earth will they share the world? And truth be told, oversights in kindness go unpunished just as frequently as honesty and respect are rewarded. (When my son recently found a dropped wallet and returned it to the owner, she didn’t even say thank you.)

So why do I keep hitting the point home that my son and daughter, who’ve never been to church in their life, have a responsibility to Do Unto Others? I trot out any number of reasons, depending on the day. "It takes just as much energy as being rude." "Imagine how you would feel if you were the other person." "Because that’s what we do in our family." I’ve even tried to explain karma, although by that point, they’ve lost interest and gone off to play Legos.

But recently, we were out for a bike ride when I got a nail stuck in my tire, which rapidly deflated. We stopped in a cafe about a mile from our home, and I asked the person behind the counter for a bike pump I could borrow. (We live in Portland, after all.) One of the guys borrowed his coworker’s car, drove home (yes, that’s right -- home) to get his bike pump, then proceeded to fill up my tire.

My kids were in awe. Seriously. "That was so nice," they both said about a dozen times. But not once did either ask why some guy we’d never met before had gone out of his way for us. I like to think that despite my kids’ bitter in-fights about who’s using the iPad or whose turn it is to snuggle with the dog that those core lessons I keep drilling into their heads -- Be kind. Be nice. Think of others. -- are sinking in.

How do you teach your children to be kind?

Written by Stephanie Booth, a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon, who lives with her husband, son, and daughter; a small dog with a big personality; and a medium-sized cat with a short fuse.

Image © iStock.com/ArtMarie

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