What is this powerful, mysterious weapon? Before I tell you, I want to ask you first to try to drop any preconceptions. Try to let go of the cynicism that’s easy for us to get into and try to keep what the great Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi called a “Beginner’s Mind” which he explains with this quote:
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.
Ok, ready? The secret-weapon I use again and again is the practice of kindness, one of the most contagious qualities we humans have. And it is this contagiousness that makes it so inspiring and powerful.
It sounds so simple, perhaps even trite, but let’s unpack it a bit here so you can start to get a sense of the profound depth and impact kindness can bring.
As we all know, being a kid–not to mention being a parent–has so many challenges that our basic, inherent goodness can get repressed or blocked. It’s often hard to tease out what is really going on from genetic, temperament, past experiences, life events, unhealthy habits, and many more.
For example, anger in a child might really be an expression of needing to connect, so telling them not to be angry is a bit like spraying a mister at the smoke (the anger), rather than pouring cool water on the fire (listening and validating without trying to force a particular outcome).
Kids Need to Fail — Sometimes
For most parents, we feel helpless having to watch our kids struggle and we react but not always to the best effect. But when we don’t allow our kids to fail, experience sadness, or be frustrated: it’s a lose-lose situation that gets set up unconsciously. Instead, this can be a great opportunity for a parent to connect genuinely with their kid, which is really what they need.
As parents, we need to get in the habit of watching our urge to react instead of trying to make the problem go away without understanding the root of the problem. Listening is key: it creates the connection and allows them to feel your presence, your kindness.
It might feel like you are not doing anything at first, but in reality you are helping them feel validated and heard which is half the battle.
Tapping Our Kids’ Basic Goodness
Through our own awareness of the underlying dynamics of our kids’ emotions, we can help them tap into their basic goodness–which is naturally expressed as kindness. It might be straightforward, but I can offer two-pronged approach as a simple way forward for you as a parent.
A little background: we cannot expect a child to be kind to others if they do not have a solid ground beneath them. It is unfair and not realistic to expect any unhappy person to be so kind and considerate to others. They need to have a basic level of self-compassion or self-kindness first, and once they have that, it becomes a bottomless well from which limitless kindness can be drawn.
The Importance of Self-Compassion
We often hear about the importance of being kind to others, but oftentimes, we need to step back and start from the understanding that self-compassion is the starting point for pure, genuine, and limitless kindness.
So, the first prong, is to give kids the tools to develop self-compassion. To be a kind person, in my book, doesn’t mean you allow people to take advantage of you or walk all over you. Kids need to find a balance and know how much they are capable of giving at any given moment and are not afraid to set boundaries.
Self-compassion is the ability to have empathy and kindness towards oneself during difficult times, know how to live in the present moment, and accept that life comes with ups and downs. Resilient kids are taught to ride out challenges without beating themselves up (judging, comparing, criticizing) or setting unrealistic expectations. They understand that human beings cannot escape from suffering and obstacles. Clearly, self-compassion has nothing to do with self-indulgence, self-pity, or being selfish.
As parents, how do we do this? We can help kids work with their own minds.
I like to tell kids this famous story: long ago in ancient India there was a man names Ravi who was committed to changing the patterns he had in his mind which were often negative. So he made a little game up, using a pile of dark and white pebbles. When he had a bad thought, he would recognize it, and take a dark pebble and put it in front of himself as a reminder. In the beginning, he would end up with a big pile of dark pebbles.
But as time went on, he kept at it and was able to catch himself with his thoughts. From a pile of dark stones, he ended up with two equal piles of dark and white, and eventually, a pile of white pebbles.
In the same way, we can work with our kids to encourage them to watch their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Just observe. No need to do anything else. Introduce this simple exercise and do it together as a family by asking everyone to share any acts of kindness they have witnessed today. A good time to do this is in the evening when everyone is relaxed. Being screen-free is essential. This is an easy way to earn more white pebbles by teaching kids to pay attention to pleasant interactions and direct their attention toward positive energy.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
You could call this mindfulness or meditation, but the label does not matter– it’s about our kid working with their mind and training it. It works.
What’s the Secret-Weapon for Overcoming Anxiety and Sadness?
Now, once your kid starts to find their footing in self-compassion, we have fertile ground to plant the seeds of kindness that will continue to grow and bear fruit. This is the second prong, where the contagiousness of kindness comes in. And your creativity is key here. Come up with opportunities for your kids to express kindness. Making a game of it can work really well.
Here are a couple examples I use as prompts. There are a lot of resources out there where you can find lots more examples.
- Ask a friend or a family member a question about themselves today. This could be as simple as asking, “How was your day?” Other question ideas: “What was one thing that made you happy today?” “What was one thing you worked on today?” “Did you see anything funny today?”
- Surprise a family member near or far with a phone call, a text, a note, a hug, a flower, or something else that will make that person feel loved or special.
- Get out of your comfort zone and try at least one of the following kind things that you have not done before: hold an elevator or open a door for someone, smile at store workers, return a shopping cart, give out stickers, share your seat, or draw a picture of a flower to give to someone.
- When you hear sirens or see an ambulance going by, send good wishes to anyone who may be suffering. You can say, “May you be happy, safe, and calm.” Pure kindness is when you consider others without expecting anything in return— and it takes only one second of your time.
The Habit of Kindness
The habit of kindness does not happen overnight, kindness takes time to blossom naturally. And here is a key thing, and one you as a parent should point out. Anytime they do the examples above, they will see how contagious kindness is. They will see smiles on the faces of the people around them. This will make your kid feel good about themselves, which will make them want to do it again. And again. And again.
If children have enough practice to express kindness and reflect on their behavior as they learn to pay attention to their feelings before, during, and especially after, they are more likely to have greater awareness of how their behaviors affect others. Meanness, bullying, discrimination, and separation in the world can be dissipated. When kindness touches one’s heart, one will want to spread more kindness into the world.
Come up with some of your own ideas on how to build on these examples with your child. Let’s start our own pandemic of kindness.