“I want a dog,” Caroline begged. “Please.” Our daughter was seven years old and had made up her mind.
“Someone will have to take care of the dog,” we told her. “It’s a lot of responsibility.” I had a full-time job and we had two children. We already had enough responsibility.
“Then let me get some kind of pet,” Caroline pleaded. “Any kind of pet.”
So we all talked about what kind of pet Caroline might get. It would have to be easy to care for and inexpensive. A cat? Too stinky. A bird? Probably too noisy. We decided on a goldfish. You never had to walk a goldfish. They never barked or whined in the middle of the night. They could swim around without a collar or a license.
Caroline really loved her little goldfish. She named him Rainbow. She sprinkled food into his fishbowl once a day and cleaned it once a week. She wished Rainbow good-morning and good-night and asked him how he was doing. She even asked him if he had enough light to see where he was going and if he preferred a different location in her bedroom. A more dedicated owner no pet goldfish ever had. Given the chance, I’m sure Caroline would have taken Rainbow out for a walk too.
But then, just a few weeks later, Rainbow died. My wife and I discovered him dead, floating without a flutter on the surface of the water in his bowl, and had to tell Caroline. That was hard for us to do, just as we knew it would be. She broke down in tears, and we had no success comforting her. We offered to get her another goldfish, but she said no thank you.
How and why Rainbow died we have no idea. But no foul play was ever suspected. Maybe he was old or sick. Maybe he missed his pet-store friends.
Now came another tricky issue: what to do with the body. As it happened, it was summer, and we belonged to a beach club on the Atlantic Ocean. Caroline came up with the idea: we would bury Rainbow at sea.
So off we went to our cabana, Rainbow adrift in a plastic bag filled with water. We shuffled in our sandals on the hot sand toward the shoreline. Caroline stood there with us holding the bag.
She told Rainbow she loved him and was sorry he had died and would miss him. Then she said good-bye and dropped Rainbow into the surf. The waves quickly wafted her pet goldfish out into the ocean and out of sight. Caroline slowly waved good-bye, crying.
Losing Rainbow was how Caroline first learned that nothing is guaranteed to last forever. It also showed us just the kind of daughter my wife and I were lucky enough to have. Sensitive to the suffering of others, particularly the helpless, such as babies and other small creatures. She hated to see the vulnerable hurt.
Empathy and compassion are hard to teach, if they can even be taught at all, but maybe they can be learned from experience. Caroline knew how it felt to be hurt. Sometimes kids in school made fun of her because she was small, just like Rainbow. She never told me about any of that; I had to find out from Mom. Now maybe her sympathetic nature came naturally. But more likely, it was early on that she came to understand and identify with anything small.
That’s also why Caroline grew her hair and gave it to Locks of Love for children who go through chemotherapy. It’s why she breaks into tears at scenes in certain movies about a hardship—Dumbo separated from his mother, for example—and at the sight of a dog limping along missing a leg.
Caroline is still like that today. Just ask Coco and Edgar, her two rescue dogs.
Bob Brody, a New York City executive, essayist and father of two, is the author of the memoir Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.
Do kids value kindness? According to the Highlights 2017 State of the Kid survey, they do!
We polled 2,000 kids ages 6–12 to get their views on kindness and empathy. When we asked, “What would you change in the world if you could change one thing?” more than half of the responses related to kindness.
But when we asked, “What do you think is most important to your parents—that you’re happy, do well in school, or are kind?” only 23 percent of the kids said that it matters most to parents that they are kind. Almost half responded that their happiness matters most, and about one-third said that it’s most important that they do well in school. But, when Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, surveyed parents and asked the same question, the majority of parents said that what matters most is that their children are kind. The dissonance is concerning.
Is the message that kindness matters getting lost in the swirl of other messages kids are receiving about achievement and personal fulfillment? Is the importance of having concern for others getting buried in the noise of our me-first culture? So it seems.
If you want to be clear with your kids that kindness truly matters—and that, indeed, they can make the world a better place with acts of caring and kindness—try teaching more intentionally. Here are five suggestions for activities that will raise your family’s kindness quotient:
- Foster gratitude, a key ingredient in kindness. Gratitude cultivates positivity. It brings into focus the things in life that truly matter, and primes us to be kinder. One good way to practice gratitude is to keep a family gratitude journal. Once a week (whatever cadence works for you, but it shouldn’t feel like a chore), invite family members to make an entry—a note about something for which they are thankful. Young kids can dictate their entry to you, draw a picture instead of writing, or paste in a photo. Try to keep the focus on people or events rather than on things. For example, rather than “I’m thankful for my toy truck,” try for “I’m thankful for Grandpa who knew I’d love the truck he gave me.” Or take an occasional Gratitude Walk, observing your surroundings and naming things for which you are grateful (your helpful neighbors, the friendly dog next door, or playmates down the street).
- Mix up the dinner-table conversation. Instead of asking your kids “How was your day?” invite them to tell you something they did that day that was kind or describe a kind thing someone did for them. This can lead to some great conversation that will give you a chance to reinforce the value you place on kindness, compassion, and empathy.
- Give kids practice being kind. Before leaving on an errand or outing, decide as a family to look for opportunities for random acts of kindness. Encourage your kids to hold a door open for someone or return someone’s shopping cart to the store. Leave a quarter in the gum ball machine, or pay for another customer’s coffee at the coffee shop and see how pleased and excited that makes your kids!
- Read good children’s books and magazines together. They can throw open windows to the world, introducing us to unfamiliar places and new ideas. Choose stories with characters who are kind, who exhibit moral courage, and who are sensitive to the needs of others. According to research, fiction is great for helping readers see a situation through the eyes of someone else, and that’s how we learn empathy. Here’s a list of books to get you started.
- Schedule Family Game Night, with a twist. Leave the old stand-bys on the shelf and instead choose games that help foster empathy and caring. You can find countless suggestions online for both making and playing kindness-themed games. Try “Kindness Bingo,” a game you can play all week. Create a “Bingo” card to hang on the refrigerator. In each square, briefly describe an act of kindness that would be meaningful to your family: Call Grandma to see how she’s feeling. Help the neighbor rake his leaves. Make a thank-you card for the school crossing guard. Bake cookies to take to the neighborhood fire station. When your family completes enough kind acts to call “Bingo!” offer a small, fun reward. The reward should be simple—think “extended bedtime” or a favorite dessert. Emphasize the intrinsic reward—the happiness that comes from knowing you’ve made someone’s day.
The more opportunities we give kids to show caring and concern for others, the greater the likelihood they will become the change agents they want to be, helping to create a kinder world.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families. She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.
My name is Carlie, and I am 13 years old. My mission is to change the world with kindness, and my motto has always been “It doesn’t matter how old you are—you can make a difference!”
I choose projects that are close to my heart and enlist my community’s support to help spread kindness! I started Carlie’s Kindness Campaign when I was 9, and it recently became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. So far, through my projects, I’ve raised $2,500 worth of toys and games for kids going through chemo, sent Christmas gifts to our military servicemen and servicewomen overseas, delivered homemade baked goods to local fire and police departments to thank them, created a program at my school to promote respect for people with special needs and disabilities, organized the first annual Kindness Rocks 5K family fun run and walk to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, held a hurricane-relief supply drive for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, and hosted a Veteran and Active Duty Appreciation Lunch on Veterans Day!
Now, I speak at schools, holding assemblies to promote how awesome volunteering is, and to show kids that being kind is cool! I also do special random acts of kindness when I hear stories of people who need some kindness in their life, like a little girl diagnosed with osteosarcoma, or a single mom who has breast cancer, or a family who lost everything in a house fire. I send them a little something, like a gift card or a coloring book, with a note, to brighten their day.
I feel like Carlie’s Kindness Campaign has created an easy way for people in my community and surrounding areas (I call them Kindness Fans) to spread kindness and actively participate in making the world a better place. Because my organization helps with all kinds of issues and needs, each project is new and exciting, and draws people of all ages, backgrounds and lifestyles to help me make each project happen.
My hope is that I inspire people to do good things for others, and show them that when people come together to help, amazing things can happen.
Carlie’s Kindness Campaign is about getting people to spread kindness, in any way, shape, or form. It is fun to see kids and grown-ups excited about getting involved, and if I can be the person to spark their interest or help them along the way, then my mission is being achieved. It is easy to help others if you’re willing to put in a little effort. Acts of kindness don’t have to be big or elaborate; they can be something as simple as holding the door for someone, helping your parents carry in groceries, telling a teacher or coach thank you, or shaking a veteran’s hand. I love giving kids ideas for possible projects in their own areas, like organizing a blanket drive for the homeless, collecting food for the food bank, writing letters to our troops, or playing games with people at a retirement home. I have a notebook filled with ideas for future projects!
I’m proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish and thankful for those who are always ready and willing to help make things happen, and I love seeing faces light up when kindness comes their way. It really is my mission to try to make a difference and build relationships in my surrounding communities through giving, awareness, outreach, service projects, and acts of kindness. Our family doesn’t have a lot of money, but we do have a lot of love to spread around, and being kind doesn’t cost a dime! How are you spreading kindness in your community?