Most parents and teachers want children to be happy.
To that end, parents find themselves doing things for kids to make them happy, like buying gifts, taking them for ice cream, playing games together, or helping with homework.
Teachers are constantly doing for children too. In addition to understanding the link between knowledge and happiness, teachers often buy supplies from their own paychecks, bring treats to class, plan fun excursions, and support students in other immeasurable and enduring ways.
Do acts of kindness toward children make us happier parents and teachers? Of course they do.
In fact, studies consistently show that we feel happier when we perform acts of kindness – for our children, students, families, friends, and communities. Not only do good deeds make us feel better, but as David Brooks explained in the New York Times article Nice Guys Finish First, people who are kind and compassionate are usually the most successful.
Unfortunately, we don’t make children happy by simply enabling them to be receivers of kindness. We increase their feelings of happiness and well-being, reduce bullying, and improve their friendships by teaching them to be givers of kindness.
The truth is that children are born to be altruistic givers. But somewhere between birth and 4th grade, they are socialized to think more about themselves than others. (Yes, we all play a role in how this occurs.)
How do we change this trajectory and improve children’s well-being?
A recent study, Kindness Counts, conducted by researchers from the University of British Columbia and the University of California, Riverside, broke new ground by showing the benefits derived by tweens when they were taught happiness-increasing strategies.
For a month, several hundred 9-11 year-olds performed and recorded three acts of kindness each week for anyone they wished. Another several hundred kept track of three pleasant places they visited during the week.
Not surprisingly, the results were consistent with adult studies. When kids performed acts of kindness or took notice of the pleasant places they visited during the week, they significantly increased feelings of happiness and satisfaction.
But those who performed acts of kindness received an additional benefit. Measuring how well children were liked or accepted by their peers, the study showed those who performed acts of kindness gained an average of 1.5 friends during the four-week period – good support for the idea that “nice guys finish first.”
Like many others, this study demonstrated that being kind to other people benefits the giver. For children, it earns them increased well-being and also popularity and acceptance among peers.
Threads of kindness are interwoven with many other positive behaviors and benefits for youth. Well-liked tweens exhibit more positive, less bullying behaviors when they become teens. Happier children are more likely to have higher academic achievement. And the list goes on.
It’s easy to apply the Kindness Counts study and achieve similar results at home or in the classroom. The goal is to help kids become more mindful about doing acts of kindness and aware of feelings of gratitude when they experience pleasant activities.
Follow these four steps to increase happiness for children – and all of us!
Learn about the importance of kindness and its benefits for children and adults. The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation website is a great place to begin. You’ll find classroom and home activities for all ages of children.
Devise a month-long activity where the whole family or classroom (including parents and teachers) record ONE act of kindness or ONE pleasant activity per day. You might call it your “Happiness Project” or “Happiness Diary.” These activities might include helping with dishes, letting someone else go first, going out of way for a friend, taking care of an animal, hugging someone to make them feel better, etc. Or they might include visits to places and experiences that make us feel good, like visiting grandparents or the park.
Each week, take time to share as a family or classroom. It’s not important to share everything in one’s diary. What’s important is to share enough so that everyone learns from each other’s acts of kindness and begins to understand the kinds of experiences that bring gratitude to life. Sharing encourages reflection and helps bring meaning to our actions.
It may not be practical to keep up a “Happiness Diary” and share it on a regularly basis for much more than a month at a time. But is it possible to choose one month a year for this project? Are there other opportunities to reinforce and instill kindness throughout the year?
What strategies do you use with your children or students to increase acts of kindness and teach gratitude?
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.
Subscribe to receive email notifications of Marilyn’s articles.
©2013 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.