School Climate & Safety

Adults Send Children Mixed Messages About Kindness. Here’s Why That Matters to Schools

By Evie Blad — November 21, 2017 3 min read
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Educators and parents often speak of the value of kindness and empathy—both in and outside of the classroom. Are kids getting the message?

A national survey of 2,000 6- to 12-year-olds sheds light on the sometimes conflicting messages children receive about kindness and how the unkind actions of adults affect them. And the findings could have takeaways for schools.

The survey, commissioned by the children’s magazine Highlights, asked respondents what is most important to their parents. Forty-four percent said their parents most wanted them to be happy, 33 percent said their parents’ priority was that they would do well in school, and 23 percent said their parents most wanted them to be kind.

“Kids are hearing that parents want them to be focused on achievement,” developmental psychologist Luba Falk Feigenberg said in the report. “It’s tough because there are so many messages about individual success and achievement in particular that overpower the messages parents think they are actually sending about being caring and kind.”

And, for some adults, emphasizing the importance of kindness to children may be a case of “do as I say, not as I do.”

A majority of children responding to the poll, 68 percent, said they have seen their parents or adults acting unkindly or saying mean things. Where are they witnessing these things? Thirty-six percent said they see adults being unkind in the car, 27 percent said they heard their adults say unkind things on the phone, and—perhaps not surprising in a tumultuous political season—24 percent said they saw adults being unkind while watching TV.

Ninety-three percent of respondents had a negative reaction from witnessing this misbehavior: 49 percent of kids said it made them feel uncomfortable, 43 percent felt sad, 33 percent felt scared, and 27 percent felt confused. Twenty-two percent of respondents said it made them feel embarrassed, 22 percent said surprised, and 21 percent said they got angry.

Why Should Schools Care About Children’s Perceptions of Kindness?

Schools are increasingly embracing the notion that children will be more prepared to succeed in a changing economy if they are resilient, adaptable, and sensitive to the needs of others. Through approaches like social-emotional learning, they are teaching children things like how to understand the emotions of their peers and how to resolve problems. Nurturing those skills will also help deepen children’s learning of traditional subjects, like math and English, those schools say.

But all learning happens in a larger context of children’s family, community, and school environments, researchers have said, and that means teaching children about kindness can’t look like teaching them multiplication tables. Children notice if Mom follows her talk on loving your neighbor with a fit of road rage on the way to soccer practice. And they also notice school environments that feel chaotic or unsupportive and disharmony among adults.

That’s why proponents of social-emotional learning also promote changes to broader school policies, like discipline, and approaches that support the growth and emotional health of teachers in addition to students. It’s not just about teaching children about kindness and cooperation, they say; it’s also about creating a school environment that is conducive to their development in those areas. Here are a few stories from Education Week that touch on the topic:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.