Kindness is one of the most powerful and positive tools for creating a more happy and healthy society. Being generous, thoughtful, and helpful not only helps the recipient but also the giver. In fact, doing acts of kindness is more than just rewarding—it can also improve the giver’s overall health and well-being.
The benefits of kindness for children go even deeper. Experts have determined that practicing kindness changes the brain and provides physical and mental health benefits that can have lasting positive effects. This is why it’s essential for children to learn kindness at a young age.
As Dr. Martha Heineman Pieper, co-founder of the Smart Love approach, says, “The current climate of violence emphasizes the importance of raising children who will be compassionate and caring. Our brains contain 'mirror neurons,' which cause us to learn best by imitation—why modeling kindness, not forcing it, is the best way to create the adults we need.”
Here are some benefits of modeling kindness for your children:
Increased Happiness—Children copy how their parents treat them. When parents are consistently caring and kind, children copy this kindness towards themselves, which helps them develop inner well-being and happiness. So even when children are struggling, they feel that they are loved and valued. In addition, there are physical benefits of kindness even for the parent or adult giving kindness. Many studies have shown that kindness activates several areas of the brain and releases endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. The feeling of pleasure one gets from giving or receiving kindness activates the need to replicate those feelings. So, the more someone performs a kind act or experiences kindness from others, the more kindness is generated overall, making the positive benefits of kindness far-reaching.
Decreased Depression and Stress—Similarly to increased happiness, when children are treated kindly they are more able to respond to stress in constructive ways and have more resilience to deal with everyday losses without taking it out on themselves or others. Researchers have also discovered that an act of kindness increases levels of serotonin, a natural chemical responsible for improving mood, in the brain. Both recipients and givers of an act of kindness experience increased serotonin levels, which can lessen depression and decrease the stress hormone cortisol.
Improved School and Future Success—Kindness can also help children have a positive outlook on life. This in turn can increase their attention spans and creative thinking abilities, producing better results at school.
According to Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, it’s been documented that middle school students who go out of their way to help and cooperate with and share with their peers actually get better grades and higher standardized test scores than their classmates who are less caring and helpful.(1) As Grant says, “There's something about being taught early on to be concerned about others that actually enhances your own success later.”(2)
Positive Social/Relationship Skills—When parents are able to acknowledge and accept children’s feelings even when there is a difference in perspective, it helps children grow up to treat others with the same compassion and respect. This ability greatly increases the likelihood that children develop into adults who can enjoy closeness with others, and respect others who are different than themselves and not resort to hate or conflict.
Benefits Later in Life—Practicing kindness as a child can have long-lasting benefits. Researchers have found that children who exhibit “pro-social behavior,” such as being cooperative, helpful, emphatic, and nice, are more likely to stay in school, avoid criminal activity, avoid drug or alcohol abuse, and have better mental health as adults.
How to Raise Children to be Kind and Caring
Most parents want to raise children who are kind, but what’s the best way to do so? As with many aspects of parenting, it’s what we do instead of what we say that has the most impact on our children. So, instead of teaching kindness, it is more effective to model kindness.
Although doing kind acts for others is one way to model kind behavior, children may learn more about kindness from the way they are treated during their day-to-day interactions with their parents. As Mark T. Greenberg, a psychology professor and co-author of a 20-year study tracking Kindergartners (3), says “We know that children who are generous and kind are in part that way because of the modeling of the parents.”(4)
The Smart Love approach to parenting, which emphasizes seeing the world through your child’s eyes and understanding the meaning behind their behavior, provides a framework for modeling kindness for your child. When practicing this approach, a parent learns to react with kindness to a child’s immature behavior instead of trying to pressure the child to change it. Doing so means acknowledging and accepting a child’s feelings. This helps foster a child’s self-esteem and grow up treating themselves and others with compassion and kindness—the basis for lifelong happiness.
As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “When we can be understanding, kind and loving, children internalize this way of relating and carry it with them the rest of their lives. All these positive experiences get deposited in your children’s ‘self-esteem piggy banks’ that they will draw on to feel good about themselves when the going gets tough in school and in life.”
@MHPieperPhD. “The current climate of violence emphasizes the importance of raising #children who will be compassionate & caring. Our brains contain "mirror neurons" which cause us to learn best by imitation - why modeling #kindness, not forcing it is the best way to create the adults we need.” Twitter, January 14, 2021 https://twitter.com/MHPieperPhD/status/1349778472705667076?s=20
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
(1) Vergunst F, Tremblay RE, Nagin D, et al. Association Between Childhood Behaviors and Adult Employment Earnings in Canada. JAMA Psychiatry. 2019;76(10):1044–1051. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.1326
(2) Teaching Your Kids Kindness May Help Them Succeed Later in Life, Yasmin Amer, WBUR, July 21, 2020.
(3) Penn State. (2015, July 29). Early prosocial behavior good predictor of kids' future. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 19, 2021 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/07/150729142152.htm
(4) The Latest Health Kick for Kids: Kindness, Jamie Kiffel-Alcheh, National Geographic, November 13, 2020.