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Teaching Our Kids What It Means To Be Kind

A child psychiatrist looks at the science of kindness and empathy

In the words of Shakespeare “How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in this naughty world.”

Why has kindness endured over evolutionary changes which are tied to survival of the fittest?

Our ancestors evolved as groups and the ones with the strongest bonds survived. The best way to sustain and build strong bonds is being kind to others. Tendencies toward sympathy are instinctual and not some cultural concept. At times, they are even stronger than the instinct for self-preservation:

The quality of kindness is cardioprotective and related to the hormone Oxytocin says Dr. David Hamilton author of The Five Side Effects of Kindness. Oxytocin the hormone responsible for inducing labor is elevated in females who are breastfeeding. Among other things, oxytocin causes blood vessels to expand lowering blood pressure. Oxytocin increases with warm contact and has been postulated to be associated with compassion as well as kindness. Along with oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin ares postulated to kick in and reinforce acts of kindness.

Empathy is described as an effective response that arises from the comprehension of another’s emotional state. It results in having an emotional response that is similar to what the other person is feeling. On the other hand, compassion is usually defined as the deep wish that another be free from suffering, coupled with the motivation to alleviate such suffering. While distinct, it is commonly understood that to be kind and feel compassion, one needs empathy.

This leads us to the area social cognitive skills. We, in the world of Child Behavioral health, commonly see deficits in empathy when children have been through trauma or developmental delays. Working around this has shed some light on looking at practical ways to build on empathy and eventually compassion in children

We can develop in children the habit of having kind thoughts by verbalizing our own kind thoughts about others. It might be easier to share kind words toward family and close friends initially. Smiling more often can be a way of showing kindness in our facial expressions. We can also emphasize kindness by greeting one another in person and complimenting one another when “caught” doing a kind act. Another idea is playing games to help build on social cognition skills for children. This involves mimicking or drawing facial expressions and encouraging children to identify the emotional state associated with expression.

We can read stories around kind acts as well as emphasize news that highlights kindness. This can be valuable to help children focus on the kindness that is ever present in our world. In particular, volunteer activities where the family participates as a unit can not only help teach kindness but also help build the bonds. It’s worth remembering that evolution has taught us that it’s the groups with the strongest bonds that has survived and flourished over centuries. Talking about areas of gratitude in classrooms, at the dinner table or maintaining a gratitude diary boosts happiness, social well-being and health.

Perhaps the most beneficial and unsurprising effect of kindness to others is it teaches us to be kind to ourselves.


Get to know Hari Kumaresan, M.D.

 Dr. Kumaresan is the medical director of Pyschiatry at Cook Children'sOur experienced psychiatrists, social workers and nurses understand the wide-reaching impact of a behavioral disorder, emotional problems or psychiatric disease, and we will give your child and family all of the tools you need to manage your unique situation. Dr. Kumaresan was drawn to child psychiatry by a desire for staying in the present moment, which seems to be a natural ability in most children. Click to learn about Cook Children's Behavioral Health Team.

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