How to Raise Kind Adults

I begin this post-Thanksgiving column by thanking and congratulating Cooper Litz, a first-grade student at Dickey Elementary School. His big smile and even bigger billboard were on the front page of Wednesday’s Express. His poster was chosen as the winner in a contest sponsored by Keystone Cares. Students in grades 1 to 5 were invited to create a poster that highlighted diversity and inclusion in our schools and community. To put it another way, Cooper’s poster, and now billboard is an excellent example of a kind boy who understands empathy.

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, or the ability to demonstrate compassion and responsiveness. While most adults probably know what empathy is, research reveals that most of us do not understand that it must be taught.

Since 2013, Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education has been studying empathy as part of its Making Caring Common project (https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu). The project’s mission is to “help educators, parents, and communities raise children who are caring, responsible to their communities and committed to justice.”

Among the data collected since 2013 is an intriguing study comparing what parents say they value and want for their children (ages 6-12) and what their children believe that their parents want. The MCC identified a ‘Rhetoric/Reality Gap.’ When the students were asked what was most important to their parents: that they were kind, happy or do well in school, kindness ranked last.

The fact that students believed that doing well in school was more important than being kind is significant and is corroborated in an earlier study (2014) when 96% of parents reported that their children’s moral character was very important if not essential. However, 81% of their children reported that happiness or achievement was their parents’ top priority. Yes, there is a gap, and it stems from parents’ daily messages regarding happiness and achievement drowning out messages about concern for others. What often follows is children prioritizing caring and fairness about their own needs rather than the needs of others. For example, prioritizing achievement may lead to stress that can foster dishonesty and cheating.

So, how can parents, grandparents and anyone children come in contact with, close this gap and what role can literacy play? Or to put it another way, how can we all “walk the talk?”

The best way, of course, is for us to model empathy and kindness at every opportunity. Children learn empathy by seeing it, by watching us help others with heavy shopping bags, or holding the door for them, or allowing them to go ahead of us in line. Another way is to have a conversation and brainstorm with our children and grandchildren what we can do to help others.

As you would expect, many age-appropriate books can both explain empathy and encourage conversation around the topic. The book and upcoming movie, Wonder, is a perfect example. In 2012, R.J. Palacio’s book was an instant hit (for ages 8-12), and he has since followed it with We’re All Wonders (for ages 4-8), and Auggie & Me: Three Wonder Stories (for ages 8-12). The movie stars Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Jacob Tremblay and is currently showing in State College and Williamsport. It is a beautiful story of kindness, friendship, and acceptance.

To find books on empathy or any particular topic that children are interested in, visit one of our local libraries, or check out the website, There’s a Book For That (https://thereisabookforthat.com/).

If you are driving through Mill Hall, be sure to check out Cooper’s billboard. It pictures different types of diversity such as a person in a wheelchair, and people of different nationalities, sizes, and shapes. He writes, “We are not the same on the outside, but we are the same on the inside. We all have a heart. We all have feelings. Be nice.”

So come on adults. Model empathy. Be nice. It’s so easy; even a first grader can do it!

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