Photograph by digitalskillet / Getty Images
Photograph by digitalskillet / Getty Images

The latest health kick for kids: kindness

Why acts of kindness during a pandemic mean so much—for the receiver and the giver

Teenager Abby Jones had an idea for something meaningful to do during stay-at-home orders: “She started filling jars with dried rosebuds and glitter—little fairy jars for kids in the neighborhood to find,” says mom Brooke Jones, vice president of the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation.

Abby placed them in public pathways and parks. The local kids were so thrilled that she followed up with handmade, giant bubble wands. Says Jones, “She was looking for something to cheer others up—it ended up cheering her up!”

Acts of kindness can be rewarding, but it turns out doing things for others is more than just uplifting. It can promote good health, making it an extra-big gift for kids during a pandemic. "We know that being kind goes a heck of a long way to make us feel better,” says Stanley Spinner, vice president and chief medical officer of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.

That’s great news for parents who want to raise considerate kids who can weather these often unkind times.

What kindness does for kids’ health

According to the Mayo Clinic, practicing kindness has both physical and mental health benefits. It can boost self-esteem while decreasing the stress hormone cortisol. Being kind also releases endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers.

Practicing kindness as a child may also pay off later in life. In a 20-year study, psychologists tracked kids from kindergarten until they turned 25, and revealed the surprising benefits of “pro-social behavior”—that is, being cooperative, helpful, empathetic, and just plain nice. The results: Kids who showed these behaviors early on were more likely to stay in school, avoid criminal activity, steer clear of drug or alcohol abuse, and have better mental health as grown-ups.

Nowadays, as kids deal with the ongoing stressors of the pandemic, it’s especially important for children to practice kindness as a way to stay connected with others.

“We do not function well in isolation, and it’s probably more difficult for kids because they don’t have all the social and emotional skills to get through really stressful times like this," Jones says. “The science tells us that kindness doesn’t live in a bubble. It functions when we’re connected to each other.”

Richard Weissbourd, faculty director of Making Caring Common at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, agrees: "Kindness is what gets our families healthy, our country healthy. It's how we live together so we’re constructive and joyful. If we don’t take care of each other, we won’t survive.”

How to teach kids kindness

Most parents want their kids to value being kind. Yet according to a national survey from Making Caring Common, children tend to believe that their parents care more about them getting good grades and doing what makes them happy—not necessarily about them making others happy.

Experts say that parents can turn that sentiment around by paying attention to their own behavior. Parents can model kindness toward others in their community, but children might pick up more kindness cues at home. Physican David Fryburg, co-founder of Envision Kindness, says that simple acts like smiles, hugs, and being considerate (you know, that time you did the dishes even though it wasn’t your turn) can help signal to kids that kindness is important.

“We know that children who are generous and kind are in part that way because of the modeling of the parents,” says Mark T. Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Pennsylvania State University who co-authored the 20-year study tracking kindergartners.

Kind things kids can do

One way kids can build kindness is to look for little ways to be kind each day. “Kindness is like a muscle,” says Weissbourd, author of The Parents We Mean to Be. “It needs practice.” Here are some surprising ways to build that strength.

Give something away. Leaving surprise gifts for neighbors or even strangers is a great way to teach kids selflessness—after all, they might not see the results of their actions. Jones suggests painting rocks, writing kind messages on them, and leaving them in a neighbor’s yard or even in a parking lot to be discovered.

Write a note to health-care professionals. Though a card would be meaningful to anyone, it may have extra impact for first responders. “Hearing from children as a first responder is incredibly meaningful because kids are very sincere,” Spinner says. And if children write to their own doctors, the deed might have a ripple effect: Connecting with patients builds physicians’ empathy, and studies show that when doctors are more empathetic, their patients report feeling better faster.

“Appreciate you.” Whether your child reaches out to a teacher on the front lines of the pandemic or a child’s friend who might be going through a hard time, telling someone how much they mean to you is a kindness that won’t be forgotten. One idea is to stuff a jar full of notes for a teacher—everything from fun facts they learned in school to one-word answers like “You!” (Check out these other gratitude-building ideas.)

Smile more. Sharing a smile is an easy and powerful kind act—even from behind a mask. (Just add a nod or wave.) “Emotions are contagious," Fryburg says. “If I smile at you, the likelihood that you're going to smile back rises. And if I’m happy, the likelihood that you'll be happy rises, too.” In fact, a Harvard research study showed that people with happy next-door neighbors were 34 percent more likely to be happy themselves.

Look at kind things. According to Jones, people who witness an act of kindness experience the same beneficial internal reactions as people who do the act of kindness—or receive it. “We call this ‘triangulation of kindness,’” she adds. And those feelings, in turn, inspire the witness to want to do good themselves. (Consider it positive peer pressure.)

“Seeing kindness each day will help re-center everyone, especially with all the difficult and negative images in the world people are exposed to,” says Fryburg, who co-founded Envision Kindness to spread stories and pictures of people doing really nice things.

Get funny. How do you get a squirrel to like you? Act like a nut! Kind kids want others to feel good, so telling a joke—especially during tough times—is an easy act of kindness. Plus it relieves stress, boosts endorphins, and might help people live longer. Help kids find their funny bone with this interactive game.

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