As part of my role as Innovation Leader at GEMS Education, I travel occasionally for work. When I do, my husband happily steps in to fill my share of parenting responsibilities. This does not, however, keep me from micromanaging from afar. I can often be found hopping onto Whatsapp to set up sleep-overs or to remind my husband to pick up a gift for a birthday party. On a recent trip, though, I had to make a call I wouldn’t have expected until this year - to remind my husband not to allow our children to watch the third American presidential debate.

As parents, we want our children to be kind. But how can we teach civility and generosity in a world that so often models anything but that? While attending the Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA) at Harvard University this October, I spent quite a lot of time learning and thinking about organizational culture. On the flight home, I considered how this research might apply to developing a culture of kindness within our families.

Research on culture by Michael Muthukrishna from the London School of Economics and shared at LILA states that we adopt norms and behaviours through high fidelity social learning. In other words, we intentionally and unintentionally imitate what we see others do. Given a variety of norms, we are most likely to select the ones that are conveyed by people who we admire, who appear to be succeeding in what they are doing, and who are willing to share their behaviors with us. We are also more likely to imitate the behaviors of those we see imitated or admired by others. This is nothing less than scary given our current election cycle.

Even universities are taking note. A Harvard Graduate School of Education report released in January 2016 took up the challenge of prioritizing kindness. The report cited concerns that the college admissions process in the US not only created stress, but simply did not do enough to emphasize caring for others. In response to the report, Yale University decided to add an essay about engaging with and supporting one’s family, one’s community, or the common good to their application.

While I appreciate universities doing their part, as parents, we have the greatest capacity to impact our children. We need to be intentional in not just teaching, but actually immersing our children in kindness.

  • We need to unpack our words and actions. The Making Caring Common project found that about 80 percent of youth felt that their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether or not they cared for others. Do we take opportunities to model kindness? Does kindness feature prominently in the stories we tell our children? Do they hear us talk about others with patience and empathy? We may ask our children to play fair, but do they always see us do the same?
  • We need to consider entertainment and friendship circles that envelop our children. Do our children watch shows and play games in which kindness is valued and displayed? Do we ask our children about how they and their friends treat one another?
  • We need to consider who we appear to admire and emulate as parents. Is it the parent who organizes the Ramadan fridge to help provide meals for laborers or the best dressed parent? Do we speak highly of the child with the best grades in math or the child who helps a friend?

In writing this, I reached out to my eight year old son to ask “What can we do as parents to help teach kindness?”

His answer was clear and simple, “Spend time with us and be kind. And, when we mess up, don’t yell.”

Wise words.