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Teach kindness: 4 ways to raise kids who aren't jerks

Leading by example is the key.

Every parent has probably said, “play nicely” or “be kind to your sister.” And most of us agree that we want to raise caring children. But is kindness something you can really teach?

Yes — but most of the teaching is by example.

“If you want your child to be kind, you are wasting your breath lecturing them,” said Mary Gordon, founder and president of Roots of Empathy, a K-8 classroom program designed to instill emotional and social competence, and to reduce aggression. “Kindness isn’t taught, it’s learned. In order to be kind, you have to experience it at home.”

Lip service doesn’t appear to do the trick. A recent study suggests parents have to work harder to show that they actually value things like helping an elderly neighbor as much as they do getting A’s. Last month, researchers at the Harvard graduate school of education found 80 percent of youth say their parents care more about their personal achievements or happiness than whether they are kind human beings. Of the 10,000 students surveyed, they were three times as likely to agree than disagree with the statement, “My parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member.”

Here are four ways to bridge the kindness gap and raise kids who aren't jerks.

1. Walk the walk. Children understand kindness through everyday interactions with their parents, Gordon said. Empathy begets empathy, in her view. “The way you speak to someone when they come to the door or respond to your child even when tired,” she explains, “are how your child learns to model behavior and treat other people.”

2. Talk the talk — give them kind language. Julie Masterson, professor of communication science and disorders at Missouri State University and author of "Beyond Baby Talk," says learning empathy and language go hand-in-hand. She defines kindness as the ability to take another person’s perspective and then tailor your words and actions accordingly.

Masterson describes her reaction to her 2-year old grandson, who will occasionally play favorites between his grandparents and announce: “I don’t want Mama J. I want Papa J.” While she assures parents these types of statements are age-appropriate, to model kindness, it’s crucial to respond by validating a toddler’s feelings, giving them another perspective to consider and encouraging them to “use kind words.” Masterson tells the little boy: “It’s nice that you want Papa J, but Mama J also wants to be with you.”

For older kids, Masterson recommends asking explicit questions about unkind behavior or language: how do you think that makes another person feel? What is it like to be in their shoes?

“There’s nothing incompatible with achieving at a high level and being a kind person,” promises Richard Weissbourd, psychologist and co-author, with Stephanie Jones, of the Harvard education study. “In every race, class and culture, you see families with successful children who are also focused on raising them to be caring and respectful.”

3. Reward big acts of kindness, but don't go overboard. Weissbourd, who runs the Making Caring Common project, advises parents to reward “uncommon acts of kindness” — like if a child starts a lemonade stand for a good cause or goes out of their way to help someone. However, Weissbourd says we shouldn't praise children for everyday helpfulness like taking out the trash or playing with a younger sibling. “That everyday kindness should be expected,” he said. “That’s how it becomes part of who we are, part of our identity.”

4. Force them out of their comfort zone to teach empathy. If students haven’t learned compassion and generosity by the time they’re 18, it’s unlikely that they learn “kindness” in a lecture hall or seminar, according to Shelley Kagan, professor of philosophy at Yale University. Instead, he believes young adults should interact with people from different backgrounds, to learn how to place themselves in someone else’s shoes — whether that means taking a summer job that gets them out of their comfort zone or living in a different culture.

The good news for parents is that based on evolutionary biology, children are, in a sense, hardwired to become kind. “We know that in groups where people cooperated, they flourished, but in groups where they did not, they died out.” said Stefan Klein, author of "Survival of the Nicest: How Altruism Makes Us Human and Why It Pays to Get Along." Luckily, the story of human evolution is not only survival of the fittest, he explained. It’s also survival of the kindest.

This article was originally published in 2014.