How Parents Can Help Kids Cultivate Kindness A hardwired, us-vs.-them mentality can easily pull kids away from kindness, toward cruelty. Here's what parents can do about it.
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Kindness Vs. Cruelty: Helping Kids Hear The Better Angels Of Their Nature

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Kindness Vs. Cruelty: Helping Kids Hear The Better Angels Of Their Nature

Kindness Vs. Cruelty: Helping Kids Hear The Better Angels Of Their Nature

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our next story comes from the team behind NPR's Life Kit For Parenting podcast. They've been exploring how to raise kids who are kind. Co-hosts Anya Kamenetz and Cory Turner try to unpack one fundamental question - are humans born kind?

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: The short answer is no - and yes. We're born with the wiring to be kind.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: We have these neurons in our brains called mirror neurons, and they respond in the same way when we experience pain - like, we're pricked by a needle - as the mirror neurons also do when we watch someone else experience the same thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

THOMAS LICKONA: Soon after birth, children, for example, will be more likely to cry as a result of hearing another child cry than they are in response to any other sort of noise.

TURNER: Thomas Lickona says we see signs of what's called empathic distress, even in babies. He's a psychologist who wrote the book "How To Raise Kind Kids."

KAMENETZ: Now, kindness of course is more than just sensing someone else's pain; it's also about wanting to do something about it and then doing it. And Lickona says kids show an early preference for helping, too.

TURNER: In one study researchers found when toddlers saw an adult in need - for example, appearing to accidentally drop something - nearly every child helped, Lickona says.

LICKONA: And they did this without any request from the adult and without even being thanked by the adult.

TURNER: At The University of British Columbia, Kiley Hamlin is an associate professor of psychology, and she uses puppets to test this preference for helping, even in babies.

KILEY HAMLIN: So one of our puppet shows involves a little circular character who has googly eyes.

KAMENETZ: Infants watched as this puppet googled (ph) longingly up a hill it wanted to climb. But when it tried to get there, two things happened.

TURNER: A helper puppet gives that climber puppet a boost up the hill, and then...

HAMLIN: Babies see a character come from the top of the hill and bump the climber down to the bottom of the hill, essentially preventing him from achieving his goal.

KAMENETZ: The researchers then gave the babies a choice between the helper puppet and the meanie puppet.

HAMLIN: The surprising thing was the sheer number of babies who were showing this preference for the helper.

KAMENETZ: Between 75% and 100% of babies in these studies prefer the helper.

TURNER: Yeah, and Hamlin says that suggests that even babies are looking out into the social world and picking up on...

HAMLIN: Who has goals that need help, who did what to whom, who's a good guy, who's a bad guy - and that they're using this understanding in order to structure their own social preferences.

TURNER: But there are also barriers to kindness. For example, there's a small study of children roughly 2 years old.

KAMENETZ: When these children saw other kids in distress, say, on the playground...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)

KAMENETZ: How did the kids respond? Did they go over to the child? Offer a hug? Call for an adult? In this study, they showed kindness only about a third of the time.

TURNER: So what can get in the way of kindness? For one, young kids are naturally self-centered.

KAMENETZ: Taking other's perspective is an ability that has to develop, and there's also different temperaments. Some kids are really sensitive; they can't handle other kids' pain.

TURNER: Or maybe they're shy or don't know what to do and wait for somebody else to step up.

KAMENETZ: But there's another, more disturbing barrier to kindness.

TURNER: A preference for those who look or act like us.

KAMENETZ: In a University of Toronto study, infants as young as 6 months old showed a preference for members of their own race and against members of different races.

TURNER: Kiley Hamlin has even found in babies a desire to see those not like us treated badly, and that means the onus is on us to teach kids how to be kind to everyone.

KAMENETZ: In that study of how toddlers responded when they saw other kids in distress, the ones who were most likely to help, they had mothers who were warm and nurturing but also who gave direct and firm moral instruction.

TURNER: Lickona says these mothers took it very seriously when their child harmed another child. For example, they'd say something like...

LICKONA: You hurt Amy. Pulling hair hurts. Never pull hair.

KAMENETZ: Lickona says this clear correction delivered with feeling sends a strong message.

LICKONA: And as a result, the child was more likely to respond compassionately when she saw another child crying on the playground.

TURNER: And so that's how you get a kid who runs to help, like this little boy we met at a preschool on the campus of Eastern Connecticut State University. He's trying to help his friend Bella (ph) as his teacher steps in.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I'm going to help Bella.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Oh, great. Let's see. Look it - your friend's going to help you put on your glove. What a kind friend.

TURNER: It turns out kindness is complicated. Altruism is not inevitable.

KAMENETZ: It's a skill and a habit that parents, teachers and the rest of us grown-ups have the power and the responsibility to foster.

For NPR News, I'm Ana Kamenetz.

TURNER: And I'm Cory Turner.

SHAPIRO: You can find every episode of NPR's Life Kit For Parenting at npr.org/lifekit.

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