In a world where divisiveness seems to be the new normal, RAISING OUR CHILDREN WITH GRACE AND BENEVOLENCE is more important than ever
IMAGINE A WORLD IN WHICH KINDNESS IS CONSIDERED as important a virtue as intellect and athleticism. A world in which children seek to be compassionate and charitable, to be empathic and connected and interested in helping others, not because it looks good but because it feels good. Such a world is possible, say Dale Atkins and Amanda Salzhauer, whose recently published book, The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Compassionate and Connected Children, is a blueprint for raising “kids who care.”
Dale, a Greenwich resident, psychologist, and frequent media contributor and TODAY guest, says she was originally inspired to write a book in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. “I’d had this idea based on questions and conversations that came up during talks and media appearances at that time,” she recalls. “It seemed to me there were lots and lots of people concerned about what was going to happen and how they were going to raise financially responsible and charitable children.”
She reached out to friends and colleagues for input—starting with her niece, Amanda Salzhauer, mother of three with a Master of Social Work. “She was raising three young girls; and even though I am prejudiced, they were by anyone’s assessment three of the most charitable children I had ever met,” says Dale.
The more the two women talked, the more they realized they not only shared the same values when it came to their families, they also shared the same vision. “One of the things I saw going on in the world around us at the time was the behavior of our kids’ friends and being a little disappointed that a lot of them were not engaged or connected with other people in a way that I wanted my kids to be,” says Amanda, who lives in Riverdale and presently serves on the boards of several nonprofits, including the Dartmouth Center for Social Impact and Child HELP Partnership.
The pair decided to collaborate and write the book together. Initially they intended to focus on Dale’s original premise—how to teach children to be charitable and compassionate. However, their research led to a surprising discovery and an “aha” moment. “We interviewed people we considered to be very charitable,” Amanda recalls. “Most of them shared similar characteristics that seemed integral to their being,” she says. “It was part of who they were.”
The women identified ten of these characteristics they consider to be the components of kindness: acceptance, commitment, connection, empathy, nurturing, giving of oneself, being interested in others, observing, questioning and being yourself.
“We realized that instead of teaching children how to be charitable and compassionate, we should focus on giving parents the tools to nurture the qualities that are already in their children,” says Dale. She points to research from the Yale Baby Lab that supports their idea. “With infants between six and ten months, they have observed these little ones as individuals on the basis of their helping or hindering kinds of behaviors. The infants show a preference for those exhibiting helping behaviors. It’s really those helping behaviors that we wanted to focus on and encourage in our children,” she adds.
The Kindness Advantage is filled with insights, tips and tools for parents, teachers and grandparents looking to get young children started down a kinder, more compassionate path. It is divided into three parts. In Part One, the authors tackle the question, Why kindness? The short answer: Because it’s good for you.
“Kids who have a purpose in life, tend to feel better about themselves,” says Dale. “And the better they feel about themselves, the better they will feel about other people. It leads to a lot of good things like compassion and happiness, better relationships, improved self-esteem and good mental and physical health.” Additionally, “It’s recognizing and understanding the incredible impact you can have on the world, even as a kid,” says Amanda.
Part Two helps parents uncover their child’s compassionate qualities—the ten characteristics outlined above—and then offers practical suggestions on ways to nurture them. “Understanding these characteristics will give you the tools to shape and strengthen your child’s kindness neural pathways,” says Dale. The authors tackle each of the ten individually, and include text for parents to read themselves, text for parents to read to their children, and questions designed to help children connect and integrate each concept with their own life experience.
Part Three offers practical advice on everything from conversation starters and relaxation techniques to recommended books for both adults and children. Sprinkled throughout are stories of young people who are already doing amazing work, as well as quotes from children, clergy and community leaders about the value of caring and compassion.
“One of the most inspiring things for me was learning how many kids are out there engaged in their communities,” says Amanda. Among them? Kids like Max Konzerosky who badly wanted to volunteer when he was seven years old, but none of the places he tried welcomed children his age. So, he started his own charity, Happy Kids Care, whose young volunteers work with children at a local homeless shelter. (Max was honored with Moffly Media’s 2013 Light a Fire Outstanding Youth award). And Olivia Bouler, who was inspired to use her talents as an artist to help with the Gulf Coast cleanup. She created 500 original watercolor illustrations of birds that she donated to the Audubon Society and raised $200,000 in the process. And Phoebe, a five-year-old in San Francisco, who was so moved by the sight of a homeless man begging for food, she chose to collect and recycle cans for her preschool community service project. Phoebe raised more than $3,700, which funded 17,800 hot meals.
“Parents really want to raise charitable children, but they’re not sure how to go about doing it,” says Dale. “And what we wanted to help them understand is that there are wonderful opportunities every day. You don’t have to start a nonprofit. You can do something small.”
In a world that feels more and more divisive, a little kindness can go a long way.
Laying The Foundation
PRACTICAL TIPS FOR PARENTS
1 THE BASICS
• The authors offer a variety of suggestions on how parents can help children become more compassionate and empathetic. They urge parents to start instilling these messages as soon as possible. “Parents tell me they want to raise their kids to be charitable people but worry their kids are too young to understand,” says Dale. “I tell them, ‘It’s never too early.’”
• Remember: The goal is nurturing what’s already there. “We are hardwired to be kind,” she says, comparing the process to working a muscle in order for it to get, and stay, strong. “We have to encourage the kindness muscle, to work it to see it grow.”
• Role modeling, praise, paying attention—these are all ways to reinforce new ideas. Think outside the box. “Bedtime stories are a great tool for making kids more aware of their actions,” says Amanda. “Use the time you read to your child as an organic opportunity to discuss what the character is doing—what the motivation is, what the underlying feelings are. Was she kind to the other characters, for instance, and, if not, how did her actions affect them?” Dale adds; “The idea is that we get so busy with our own lives, we miss opportunities to teach our children to observe the world around them.”
2 BE A ROLE MODEL
• It all starts at home. By showing patience, communicating respectfully and showing compassion at home, parents model kindness for these interactions outside the home. “Kids watch everything we do,” says Amanda. “How you speak about other people, what you don’t say. How you treat other people, friends, colleagues, even strangers.” Small acts of kindness are as important as grand gestures. “We’re talking about the little things. If you see someone who needs a hand, give it to them. Holding the door for someone, helping someone at the grocery store. Smiling at someone you don’t know. These are the opportunities that we all have every day of our lives.”
• Share why volunteering is important to you. If possible, take your child with you so he or she can see what you do and the impact you have. “It’s important for kids to understand that volunteering not only helps other people, it helps them feel good about themselves, too,” says Dale.
• Be attentive. “Show your kids that you are paying attention when they do something kind, that what they did was important. A lot of people say, ‘I expect them to do that.’ And I say, ‘Kids appreciate it when they are acknowledged.’”
3 INSIGHT INTO ACTION
• “The research tells us that when people are motivated to do something themselves rather than when they are made to do it, the experience is much better for the giver and the receiver,” says Dale. The goal? “We want people to create hands-on experiences that start a lifetime of volunteerism,” says Amanda.
• Find something that is meaningful for the whole family. To help facilitate this, the book offers a questionnaire for parents to help identify subject areas and topics that interest them—from animals, refugees and veterans to the elderly, domestic violence and the environment. From there, readers explore types of settings they might be interested in, such as a day-care program, hospital, library, or soup kitchen. Most important, the questionnaire asks what strengths you would like to encourage through a volunteer experience. “We want to help people understand their goals and break it down so it’s a good match,” says Dale. “Something that is meaningful to the family, that will resonate with the family and reflect the child’s interest.”
4 HAVING TOUGH TALKS
• Conversations about difficult subjects can be hard, especially when kids are involved. But the ways in which we communicate through challenging situations, particularly when emotions are heightened, play a critical role in teaching kindness. “We really believe you can talk about anything to a kid,” says Dale. “You want your children to come to you and ask questions. The way we respond to them will determine if they will do that.”
• TAKE YOUR TIME “It’s okay not to have a conversation the moment your child brings something up,” says Amanda. “You can say ‘I really want to talk about this, but I don’t think it’s the right time. That gives you a chance to gather your thoughts.”
• DON’T OVERSHARE
“You may feel that you need to share a lot of detail, but that’s not the case. Give basic information, and if your child wants or needs more, they’ll ask,” says Dale.
• BE FOCUSED “Do everything you can to make the conversation as successful as possible,” says Amanda. “Speak slowly, calmly and in short sentences.”
• LISTEN PATIENTLY “You may want to jump in with a reaction. But listening nonjudgmentally conveys that you’re hearing what your child is saying,” says Dale.
5 ACTION PLANS
• The book outlines action plans for a variety of scenarios—from how to talk about death to what to do if your child is frightened by something he sees on the news.
You learn that your child is being bullied. What next? “It’s important to know the circumstances,” says Dale. “Did your child come to you or did someone else give you the information?” Don’t feel rushed. Listen to what your child is telling you. Validate the feelings but avoid making promises about how you will handle the situation. “Promise what you can,” say Dale. “That you will decide how to handle the situation together.” As important as it is to be there for your child, it’s important to be there for yourself. “Be aware of the feelings you are having. It will bring out all the mother bear instincts, but you don’t want to overreact. Children watch us carefully. If you collapse on the first sentence, you won’t get
• THEY SEE SOMETHING SCARY ON TV Whether it’s a scene in a movie or a segment from the news, acknowledge your child’s fears. “Try to get them to tell you specifically what they’re afraid of,” says Dale. “Did they see something in a movie that frightened them—someone being kidnapped or hit or lost? Did they hear about a school shooting, an earthquake or hurricane? They might worry about what would happen to the dog, to us.” The first thing you need to do is reassure them, tell them they are okay and safe in this moment with you, says Dale. And if the timing feels appropriate, talk about the importance of being prepared and having a plan. “You never want to say ‘it can’t happen here’ because we know all too well, it can,” says Dale. “Don’t give a false sense of security, give a present sense of safety.”
• DEATH OF A FAMILY MEMBER “Consider your child’s developmental level. He may not understand that it’s permanent,” says Dale. “It’s important that you understand your own issues around death.” Avoid euphemisms. “If you tell your child someone is asleep, they will expect them to wake up.” Avoid going into too much detail. “It’s important, but not important all at once,” says Amanda. “Follow your child’s lead. They will tell you or show you what they need.”
The Kindness Advantage is available on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com, as well as at Diane’s Books in Greenwich. For a schedule of upcoming readings, visit thekindnessadvanagebook.com