Kindness, while sometimes hard to define concretely, is the quality I want my children to have more than anything else. I’d much rather they be kind and empathetic to their friends than get all As on their report cards. But recently, I noticed that my kids were rarely going out of their way to treat others kindly. Even in the house. They weren’t necessarily being cruel, they just didn’t seem plugged into others’ needs or emotions. Then, when the sibling squabbles started erupting rapid-fire, I felt like I needed to do something about it. They could do better. So, I quickly looked for ways to increase kindness within our home.
I recently listened to the book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World by Michele Borba, Ed D., who talks about how kindness and empathy can –and should — be nurtured at all ages. That is, these traits aren’t just planted within us, but really need to be nurtured; they can easily bloom when given the right encouragement and modeling. So, I decided to try one of Borba’s tips. I created a kindness vase.
I grabbed a clear glass vase and placed it in the middle of our kitchen table. Next to it, I put a pen and different colored post-it notes. I gathered the family around one Saturday afternoon and explained how it would work: Each time someone in our family (parents included!) went out of their way to do something kind for someone else, we’d write it down on the sticky note and drop it into the vase. They needn’t be grand gestures, I explained; small deeds count, too. I offered a few examples. They could check in with a friend who seemed down or struggling in class, volunteer to clean up a mess home (even if it wasn’t theirs!), or simply try to make their sibling smile in a moment when it was needed. If I expected enthusiastic cheers, I didn’t get them. The whole family just kind of stared at me as I laid out the game plan. My kindergartner actually rolled her eyes, and my second-grade son went back to his Legos on the family room floor. At least I had tried?
As I prepared dinner that night, the kids played—my son with his Legos and my daughter with a puzzle — and soon the carpet was overtaken with tiny Lego and puzzle pieces. I had that familiar feeling of dread at the thought of trying to get them to clean up the mess before dinner. But soon I heard a clunking noise coming from the family room. My daughter, totally unprompted, was picking up her brother’s Legos, slam-dunking them into his big bucket. Then he began helping her with her puzzle pieces. They were working together.
I wanted to grab a pair of pom poms and cheer. Instead, I calmly walked over to my kids and handed them pens and two sticky-notes. “OK,” I said. “Fill these out for your kind deeds and drop them into the vase, please.” A smile swelled on both of their faces. They felt good to be helping each other, and not because Mom had told them to.
It’s been a little over a month, and so far, this visual reminder is working for my children—and my husband and me, too. We’re all thinking of the vase throughout the day, and, as a result, thinking of others more often. When I’m teaching, I try to go out of my way to help a student who’s struggling or shy. My kids have approached new kids on the playground and made a point to make new friends and broaden their circle instead of enclosing it. That’s my favorite part: that empathy is taking hold right along with the kindness.
Things aren’t suddenly perfect. My kids still bicker as usual and we all still miss plenty of opportunities to be kind to others over the course of each day. But we’re growing. I see it and feel it.