Parenting advice: Raising kind children

Jul 23, 2014

Richard Weissbourd is a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education who runs the Making Caring Common project. The project’s aim is to help parents, educators and communities raise caring, kind and respectful kids. Weissbourd recently outlined five ways to raise children to be kind.

Just want to briefly introduce myself.  I'm the father of 3 and a recent empty-nester.  My kids are 18, 22 and 25.  I love parenting older kids but I miss them!  I teach at the Harvard Grad. School of Education and I'm the author of The Parents We Mean to Be.  Very glad to respond to your thoughtful questions. 

Hello, everyone. We have the wonderful Richard Weissbourd with us today, ready to answer questions about parenting and how to help raise children who are kind. He launched a program at the Harvard School of Education called Making Caring Common, aimed at helping parents, educators and communities raise nice kids. He and his team released a report recently that we wrote about at On Parenting and it really resonated. So, let's discuss, shall we?

I have a 4 and a 3 year old. I want them to have nice manners, but I also want them to stop talking to every person they pass on the street, or at least to feel ok not talking to people who randomly ask them things when we are out (hi little girl, how old are you? is that your favorite animal? etc). How do I explain that they should say thank you to the cashier who gives them a sticker, but that they shouldn't necessarily keep talking to the man sitting on a bench at the store? They often ask, is that man a stranger? And it's hard to say yes he is but you still have to say please and thank you, but that stranger over there is ok to ignore if he makes you feel uncomfortable. Hope this makes sense and thank you!

Good question!  I would focus on your kids expressing thanks to people who are contributing to them in some way, like a bus driver or a restaurant server as opposed to saying hi to strangers.

I do face painting at parties and festivals. From time to time, I will get a request from a child that doesn't conform to the typical gender, like a boy who wants his face painted like a pink butterfly. Sometimes, the parent will try to direct them towards a different choice. I understand that some children have chosen to like things commonly associated with the other gender, but they may not realize that sometimes displaying that choice in public will bring more attention than they want or expect. I would rather do a design that the child picked than one their parents try to force on them, but don't want to put them in a difficult position they might not be ready to handle. People seem to say less about the girl who picks a monster than the boy who picks a girly design. I am not sure how much I should step into the negotiation between the parent and their child.

A great question with no easy answer.   My inclination would be to gently offer input to the parents in these situations if you have concerns so the parent can provide more informed guidance to the child.

We know it is important for kids to learn to contribute to the household through chores and picking up their toys. This is a big challenge with our six year old son. When it comes time to help with very light chores (washing his dish and putting it in the dishwasher, picking up his toys, using a broom to sweep the floor, etc.), he whines and complains. Suddenly, he is tired and sick. It's tempting to do the small task ourselves just so we don't have to deal with it and so we get out the door on time. We haven't caved, but I'm tired of battling. Any guidance on getting kids in early elementary school to do chores? What about rewards/punishments related to doing or not doing chores?

I struggled with my own kids around this.   I would require your elementary children to do basic chores (not too much) and tell them not to complain about it because it's an expectation in the family.  If they keep complaining, I'd consider a light punishment, e.g. reduced TV time.

Are you saying that it is either achievement OR caring and that we (adults and kids) have to choose one or another? That seems like a false choice to me--I believe we can have both but it's not clear to me what you think.

I totally agree-- you can certainly achieve at a  high level and care at a high level.   We explain this in our report.  Many parents are clearly raising kids who are very caring and high achieving.  The concern we're raising is that we're out of balance, that the power and frequency of parental messages about achievement are too often drowning out messages about caring.

Does it really make sense to distinguish between parents who prioritize their children's happiness and those who prioritize their children's caring? Since expressing gratitude, generosity, compassion, and forgiveness typically increase the well-being of the "giver" as well as the recipient, it seems that caring is a subset of happiness. If I were asked as a parent which I wanted more for my children, to be happy or to be caring, I would likely choose happy, since in my mind, that assumes the child has reached a level of kindness and caring. Which is not so much a question about raising kind children, but one that's been on my mind since I read your study. Would love to hear your insights on this.

My concern is that many parents are focused on their kids immediate happiness and don't see compassion, gratitude, etc as roots of well-being.   And people can be happy who are not caring.   You can be a very successful politician, athlete or corporate executive, for example, and be happy but not caring.  So I appreciate your message.  Parents should focus on their kids being caring because it's the right thing to do but also because it can give their kids an important and positive source of happiness.

What is, and what should be, the role of the public schools in helping to raise caring, kind, respectful kids? Is there a precedent for advocating for such an agenda in public school systems?

Public schools were founded to build character in kids.  That's traditionally been their role.  And there are still many character ed programs in schools.  Our website has some good ones and strategies that schools can take up.  I think it's important for parents to ask their kids' teacher and principal if the school is doing an evidence-based character education program.

With relation to the first question, why shouldn't they keep talking to the man sitting at the bench on the store? Unless he's getting annoyed about it. Or he presents some danger to them. Otherwise, why not encourage them to be friendly and open, even with strangers?

I think they should be friendly and open if there's a parent around who can assess the situation and views it as safe and un-intrusive.

How do you raise kind children who are also able to stand up for themselves against bullies?

I think parents should give kids a range of strategies for responding to bullies.   Sometimes standing up to a bully can make a child the next target.  So parents should help kids assess whether the best strategy is to stand up directly to the bully, or to tell a teacher and/or comfort the victim, or to rally other kids and collectively stop the bullying...

My children, ages 9, 8 and 6, want to give money to every beggar we see on the street or who approches us at a traffic stop. I've explaied that we give money to our Church and to other groups that help the homeless, ad we've started making sandwiches once a month to be distributed at a local park. I must admit I feel sorry for these unfortunates but our finances are limited so we're limited in what we can do. How can I make my children understand this?

 It sounds like you have wonderful kids!  Might you explain the situation, i.e. say to them something like:  "I really appreciate how concerned you are about people who are homeless, but we are unable to give to everybody because we have limited money so we are trying to give to a few causes that we think will not just help a few people but help a lot of people."

My 9 year old son made a comment concerning me always holding the door for people and being nice to others. He seems to appreciate that.

Sounds like great modeling!

We are doing our best to raise a kind child. There are some children in the neighborhood who have treated her with a lot of unkindness. She is only 6 and so far seems to be taking things in stride. Do you have any advice on how to talk to her about the behavior of other children?

Great question.   You may want to say something to her like "some children have struggles or problems that cause them to be hurtful."  It's also important that she understand that their behavior is not ok and that you will work with her to find a way to protect her.  If you think it can be constructive, I encourage you to talk to the parents of the kids who are unkind.

After my 4yo daughter hits or hurts her twin sister or older brother (usually without provocation), she will immediately say "I''m sorry" with the expectation of no punishment. Punishment usually means removing her from her sibling to a different (read: boring) place. How can we get her to understand that hitting+sorry is not acceptable, kind behavior?

Seems to me that the punishment you describe is conveying that just saying you're sorry isn't ok.  Am I missing something?

If someone is judging a little boy for wanting a pink butterfly face paint, it's that person who has the problem. Maybe the other kids will be cruel and tease him, but the parents should be teaching kids how to stand up to it, not teaching them that their choices are wrong and to avoid it!

I think it depends, i.e. some young kids might be overwhelmed by a lot of teasing.  If a parent thinks a child can stand up in this situation, then I think the parent should encourage the child to do so.  In my mind these are complicated situations where parents need to weigh many factors.

My daughter who is 4 attends a Quaker private school and is one of two black children in her class. All of her friends or children she plays with are Asian, white or biracial. The other day she made the comment that she was allergic to white people. We do not make any type of racial comments in our house. We have white family members. She is in camp where the campers and counselors are majority white. I told her that was horrible remark and was very hurtful to people she knows. Should I do anything else? Is there racial sensitivity class for a pre-kindergartner? I want her to accept diversity in everyone.

It's not uncommon for 4 year old children to make racially insensitive remarks.   I think you are right to tell her it's hurtful, but I would also explore with her why she made the remark.  Did she have a bad experience?  Did a white person make a racist remark?  Sorry-- I don't know of classes on diversity for pre-kindergarteners, but I don't know that your daughter needs a class.   You might talk to her teacher about how she or he talks about diversity in the class and promotes understanding across race and culture.

Thank you for taking my question. She continues to hit her sister on later occasions so she's not getting it. Maybe too much to expect from a 4yo?

Yep-- maybe too much to expect.  But I would still punish her, though not severely.

I love the article! How can parents find opportunities to teach kindness between siblings at home?

Thanks!  Complicated question!   Teaching siblings to be kind to each other can be very tough!  It's important to discipline siblings who are obviously and repeatedly unkind. Promoting a sense of family loyalty and unity by spending fun time together as a family can help.  Often siblings enjoy each other in certain situations-- when they're playing certain games, for example-- and it can help to guide them toward those situations.

Thanks so much to Richard Weissbourd for joining us and for clearly hitting something many parents are interested in. I'm looking forward to watching his work, and taking on some of his advice for raising kind kids. Thanks for joining us, all.

I really appreciate all the thoughtful questions!  Good luck on the wild and wonderful parenting journey!

In This Chat
Amy Joyce
Amy Joyce has been at The Post, well, for a long time. Her first foray in to online chats were related to work. Now she's happy to chat about fun (but would like to believe the two can be one). She has been a Business reporter, editor for Weekend and the Going Out guide, and is now editing and writing for OnParenting. When not at work, she can be seen unsuccessfully dodging wiffle balls in her front yard.
Richard Weissbourd
Richard Weissbourd is a Harvard psychologist with the graduate school of education. Weissbourd runs the Making Caring Common project, aimed to help teach kids to be kind.
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