By Dale AtkinsBy Dale Atkins, PhD and Amanda Salzhauer, MSW

Kindness is important because, among the many benefits, studies continue to support that it is positively linked to our happiness, mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health, overall well-being, AND it can give our life meaning. For kids who are engaged in service to others, research shows that they feel better about themselves, have better attitudes towards learning and school (and they do better in school), have improved social skills, and increased civic engagement.

The majority of parents say that they place high value on their children being kind, yet that message can be confusing for children, especially, because they are more often acknowledged for their academic, athletic, and artistic achievements than for their acts of kindness. But when we look at our children through a lens of kindness we see things that often go unnoticed. When we tell our son: “It was thoughtful of you to draw a “get well” picture for your friend Joey when he was in the hospital” or mention to your daughter: “I noticed you filling your hamster’s water bottle. You take good care of her”, we are paying attention to, and acknowledging our kids’ kind behaviors. When we take an extra moment to thank the person who bags our groceries, or when we hold the door for someone behind us, or put our phone away to fully focus on the person with whom we are speaking, we are practicing and modeling kindness. Having these interactions, brief as they may be, gives us an opportunity to connect with others. And our children observe us doing these everyday acts of kindness.

We can help our very young children connect with others through kindness. In addition to modeling kindness we can tell our kids what we are doing and why. For example, explaining, “I know that Aunt Jen is upset about something that happened at her job this week so I’m going to call her to ask how she is doing”, conveys the empathy we feel for another person. We can also ask, “What would you like someone to do for you when you felt upset?” which can help our child see a situation through another’s eyes.

In addition to modeling empathy for others we can start by being empathic with our own kids. When we listen carefully, watch closely, and put our own reactions aside, we give them room to have their own emotional response, whatever it may be. This can be an incredibly validating experience for a child. Additionally, accepting that our children have a full range of feelings allows them to be empathic to and connect with others when they see someone else having a familiar response.

Acts of kindness can even be contagious. When we help others we feel good. In fact, our brain releases endorphins (the “feel good” hormones) and we experience what is called a “helper’s high”. We then want to do more acts of kindness and the person we help often feels similarly inclined. She is more inclined to do an act of kindness. Even someone watching another person perform a kind act can experience the release of those endorphins.

This kindness contagion is powerful. Most of us, regardless of our faith, grew up with some version of “the golden rule”. But how often do we actually ask ourselves “How do I want to treat other people and how do I want to be treated?” At a time when we so much unkindness is all around us, the world might be better place if we asked ourselves that question more often. By reflecting on this question, modeling kindness and encouraging our children’s acts of kindness, we can help them become connected and engaged with the people around them and in their communities.

Dale Atkins, PhD and Amanda Salzhauer, MSW are the authors of The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Compassionate and Connected Children.