There I sat, in my usual Starbucks "office," eyes plastered to a screen, hands on keyboard trying to write, return emails, and take care of "kid stuff" in the short time I had before running off to teach and picking up the kids from camp.
It can be a juggling act, and often the stresses of life creep into this time, making it harder to focus. This particular day I had a lot on my mind: family and friends dealing with illness and insurance issues at the forefront, exes and finances and an overwhelming feeling of worry. I guess it was all showing on my face as I attempted to sit with these feelings and attend to what I needed to do. I barely noticed as a friend of mine slipped a Starbucks sleeve in front of me on the table, blew me a kiss, and walked out the door. I looked down and there on the sleeve was a note:
I nearly broke down right there. How had he known I needed that? A reminder that I am loved, to smile, to breathe. A reminder that loving, supportive people exist in my life and a reminder that there is so much to be grateful for. This small yet huge act of kindness shifted my mindset, and I approached my day from a completely different perspective. It was beautiful!
I hear parents talk all the time about wanting to instill a sense of altruism and compassion in their children, and as a parent myself I have the same desire. There are always school fundraisers and places to donate money—and if you can give in that way it's a wonderful thing to do. But do our kids really "get it"? Do they see and feel the impact of these financial contributions in a way that makes a lasting impression?
To really make a difference, your "donation" doesn't need to be enormous or financial. Rather, random small acts of kindness with no tax write-off or expectation of return can turn someone's whole day, if not whole life, around.
To help your children understand the concept of kindness and giving, use these tips:
1. Start small.
Remember, giving doesn't mean breaking the bank. Talk to your kids about things they see in their own worlds that they might like to make better. Give them some prompts by exploring the little things that make people feel cared for or that might turn a bad mood into a good one. Use examples like holding a door for someone or giving compliments and lending a helping hand without being asked.
Don’t forget to model good behavior to help make these concepts more concrete. Kids are born with loving hearts, and as parents we can guide them to share this generous spirit in appropriate ways that make a difference.
2. Take a mindful approach.
When exploring the idea of acts of kindness, be mindful about the experience. When you or your child are on either the giving or receiving side, take some time to explore how you feel. When you are kind to someone else, what do you notice about their reaction? Is it surprising? Do their moods, faces, or bodies seem different? What do you notice in your own body? Do you stand straighter? Do you get an excited feeling in your stomach? Notice what you feel emotionally. Is there a happiness present? Perhaps there is a feeling of wanting to do more.
Try not to judge the emotions that come up, as even sadness can appear when kids begin to notice that lots of people need help. Exploring all the emotions surrounding these acts without judging them will help kids feel more connected to the experience of giving and receiving.
3. Catch them in the act.
Be on the lookout. When you "catch" your child doing something kind or showing compassion, point it out and provide praise. Although the idea is to give without expectation of reward, a little recognition goes a long way in reinforcing an action. If your child clears the table without being asked or helps a sibling when they are sad, you can say something like "I love the way you helped your brother today. That was very kind."
The praise doesn't need to be too detailed or followed up with a treat. Just a simple "I notice the kindness in you" does the job. You will find that kids will become more aware of other people's behavior, too, and develop a sense of what it means to give in a non-material way. Don't be surprised if they start catching you in the act too!
The more we can practice, talk about, and model these small acts of kindness with our children, the more it will become a permanent part of who they are. Starting small sets the stage for bigger ideas, as children grow and become more aware of both the problems in the world and creative ways to help solve them. When kids believe in their own ability to make a difference, the possibilities are endless. And they will know that even a little note given to a struggling friend at a coffee shop can have the biggest impact.