Giving kindness

It’s the time of year when many of us are remembering those who have held special places in our lives. We send out cards to people we’re only in touch with once a year, often accompanied very often with a letter listing triumphs and tragedies, bringing these acquaintances up to date with what our immediate family has been doing – Suzie graduated from high school, Peter got a new job, we’re missing our dog who’s been a part of our family forever. Whether that letter brags about you and yours, or is simply a means to keep in touch, it’s a way to connect to those who are, or have been, a part of your life. Keeping in touch is important.

Earlier this year, I pointed out that there was a reason that children shouldn’t be forced to share when they don’t want to, and I stand by that. Children need to learn to stand up for themselves. They need to develop agency, which simply means they need to learn how to be in charge of themselves. If they can’t do that, they may find themselves at the mercy of others.

In that post, I mentioned that children also needed to be taught to pay attention to their effect on others. If they honestly don’t want to share their toys, they should learn to say so. That doesn’t mean they should fail to share simply because that gives them power over others. An article in the latest issue of The Atlantic touches on this subject, pointing out that children who are taught to focus only on their own wants will lose out in the end.

This piece points out that there are two paths to popularity – status gained through dominance and prestige, or likability gained through friendliness and kindness. The challenge here is that status is conferred by others, with the person at the top via dominance or prestige constantly working to maintain that top spot, usually by ramping up the odds against others in the group. Likability, on the other hand, largely depends on the person’s own proactive behavior, and this type of person usually doesn’t care as much about what others think of them. The stress of maintaining status by dominance is huge, whereas the likeable person is kinder and more relaxed.

“But I want my child to be successful,” I hear you say. The theory is that children can only succeed if they focus on grades and do well in athletics and other after-school activities. Success is a habit, and the perception is that successful adults started those patterns early in life. The only thing that matters is doing well and making friends with others who are equally driven.

Unfortunately, this success-focused model for kids doesn’t always lead to success in adults. I’ve noticed, over years of teaching, that student leaders in high school rarely carry that success into adulthood. It isn’t that they don’t succeed, it’s that they’re not always the leaders they were earlier. Also, many adults who are very successful were not seen as leaders in high school.

There are exceptions to this, but research mentioned in this article consistently finds that children who are helpful and cooperative tend to do better in school, and in life. It may be that the ability to form relationships and help others develops skills that create more productive adults.

Another important point: that giving to others makes us feel happier. Those who are good givers simply have more fulfilled lives. My high school motto – What you keep you lose, what you give remains your own – seemed contradictory to me in ninth grade. How could that be? But the focus of the school was in teaching us to be gracious givers, and to look for ways that we could be helpful to others. As seniors, every student had a school job that was supposed to help us learn to be more tolerant. My job was student helper in the library, and it used to make me grind my teeth when students would leave newspapers scattered on the tables, not putting them back when they were finished with them. That experience helped me understand why it was important that I follow the rules in other areas of the school, because someone else was responsible there. To this day, I pick up trash because someone’s got to do it, and if I pick up some, it helps the person whose job it is if I do.

This is the giving season. All of us benefit from giving to others – it makes us feel better, happier, and it helps us learn how to share. If your child has toys he no longer needs, perhaps he can share them with younger children who are ready for them. Point out that he enjoyed the toy, and now it is time for another child to have the same joy he had. Help him see that he’s passing his joy on to others. Help your child learn to select presents to give to others in a thoughtful way. Not just something grabbed off a shelf, but something that the other person will enjoy.

Give your child the opportunity to learn to make gifts for others, the ultimate sharing of oneself with those we love. Every parent has treasured gifts their child has made – mine is a rock that is covered with crayon that my son made for me to hold my papers down. He was three and saw that I needed a paper weight, so he made me one. He’s in his thirties now, but that rock still sits on my desk, holding down papers.

How will your child learn this skill of giving? By watching you. When he sees you making things for others, he will want to do that. When you comment on how nice someone is, he will learn to value that trait in others and in himself. Be kind, and they will learn kindness.