A lot of parents today think the best way to educate kids is to be in total control. This is the foundation of “helicopter parenting,” a very involved parenting style in which kids have little or no control of their daily activities.
Studies have indicated that kids with helicopter parents who have high expectations for academic performance, or who overreacted when they make a mistake, tend to be more self-critical, anxious and vulnerable.
But my biggest problem with helicopter parenting? It places no importance on kindness.
Too many parents are only focused on winning, convinced that if their kids aren’t perfect, they will fail in life. And if their kids fail, they fail as well. It’s a very selfish and narrow way of thinking.
Why kindness matters in parenting
When we fixate on individual success, we’re inadvertently raising narcissistic children who lack empathy. Kids don’t have time to think about other people when they’re focused on performing.
Kindness was something I prioritized teaching my daughters when they were young. Today, Susan is the CEO of YouTube, Janet is a professor of pediatrics, and Anne is the co-founder and CEO of the genetics and health company 23andMe.
But it was never about money or fame to them. They had a drive to make a difference in other people’s lives.
For Susan, kindness meant taking better care of her employees. When she was at Google, she helped set up a daycare program. She knew parents would be happier and perform better if they knew their kids were in good hands. She also fought for longer maternity leave.
For Janet, kindness meant helping parents raise strong children with healthy eating habits. And for Anne, kindness was giving people more control of their health by helping them understand their own genome.
People who are kind also tend to be happier and live longer. All kind acts have a bit of self-interest in them: They give us a sense of peace and meaning that can’t be bought.
How to teach kindness at a young age
Kindness is a way of living, and not something you do a few times a year on Christmas or Thanksgiving.
Here are my tips for raising kind and caring kids:
- Make “thank you” a common phrase in the home. I taught my daughters to always thank me, thank each other, and thank everyone who did something for them.
- Help them find outlets in their communities. Look around. What problems need solutions? How can your children participate? They could care for the elderly, join environmental cleanups, be a mentor, or help at a soup kitchen.
- Model it yourself. If you are grateful for what you have, your kids will be, too. If you’re always complaining, expect them to do the same.
- Have them write thank-you notes. My daughters would regularly write letters to their grandfather in Poland. Some were pretty trivial, but they were sharing their lives with him: “I went to the park today and played with my friend Jessica. I miss you.”
- Get them a gratitude journal. It will be fun to read years later. “I am grateful for a ladybug I found today.” “I am happy that my sister shared her ice cream.”
- Play pretend at home. All you have to do is give your child the start of a story, a piece of clothing, or a toy — and she will invent her own characters. When kids pretend to be someone else, they learn what it feels like to be in another person’s shoes. It gets them to think outside their own lives, a necessary state for having empathy.
- Treat them with kindness when they mess up. We may think that yelling and spanking works, but it only creates anger and guilt. Kids also tend to follow the model and get angry and yell when someone else makes a mistake.
Everyone needs to be shown and taught kindness so that they can reflect it back to the world, and it starts at home when they are children. That’s is the real meaning of raising successful people and shaping the next generation.
Esther Wojcicki is an educator, journalist, and bestselling author of “How to Raise Successful People.” She is also the co-founder of Tract.app and the chief parenting office at Sesh. Follow her on Twitter @EstherWojcicki.