We can all point to some dreadful people who seem to live forever, but in general the numbers favor the good guys. According to researchers, being charitable in behavior—being kind—promotes happiness, healthiness, and longevity. Since kindness tends to be good for ourselves and others, maybe we should even teach it. But does that make any sense? In advance of the Zócalo event “Is Altruism a Wonder Drug?” we approached several people who make a profession of empathy to tackle a simple question: Can kindness be taught?
Empathy has three components: 1) recognizing how another person is feeling, 2) taking the person’s perspective, and 3) vicariously feeling what the person is feeling. Without the last component we may feel sympathy for the person’s plight but may not be moved towards compassionate behavior. Empathy involves emotional connection, defines what it means to be human, and forms the basis for altruism. And, most definitely, it can be taught and learned.
Psychologist Paul Ekman devoted his professional career to studying seven basic emotions found the world over (see if you can name them), coding the cues for each emotion, and teaching others how to read the human face. Using his book Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life (Henry Holt & Co., 2003), you can learn his method. Similarly, perspective taking can be developed by regularly imagining what it is like to stand in another person’s shoes. You can enhance this capacity in yourself and others by practicing active listening skills. These include making eye contact, reflecting feelings by mirroring their expression or saying “sounds as if you’re feeling ______,” and paraphrasing what you hear the person say in order to check for understanding of their experience.
We naturally feel greater empathy for people with whom we have more in common. For example, we are more likely to experience empathy with a colleague who is late on a joint project because her daughter is ill if we are friends with her, have juggled work with raising children, and value responsibility to family over work responsibilities. So what happens when we don’t match up in this way? This is where we lean on our imaginations of what it must be like to be in her situation. We can also fall back on the golden rule, treating others as we would like to be treated.
Kindness is caught, not taught. Children who experience kindness directly in the earliest years are predisposed to be kind, because the experience of being treated kindly is biologically embedded in the child’s brain. Children come predisposed to be empathic, and they come predisposed to be kind and cooperative. Many years ago, when I announced to my family that I was going to marry a man who was from another continent and another religion, my mother’s only question was this: “Mary, is he a kind man?” There is no intimate relationship that will survive, be it a friendship or a lifetime partnership (like a marriage), without kindness. It is in the relationship between parent and infant that the predisposition to kindness blooms or fades. But before kindness even enters the picture there must be empathy, because, without empathy, the ability to understand how another feels, kindness is not likely. So, the real question is: Can empathy be taught?
As a clinical psychologist, I have worked with some unkind individuals, and I have found that most can be taught to be kind. One reason for this is that human beings have the capacity for kindness, so it’s not as if we are trying to teach something that is entirely unfamiliar or ungrounded. As a Jewish educator, I have a clear mission to promote gemilut chasadim, acts of loving-kindness, among people. Parents have a particular responsibility to teach children to be kind—to siblings, grandparents, other family members, the less fortunate in their community, and those suffering around the world. And as a community psychologist, I believe one mission of schools must be to teach kindness, because without it schools and classrooms become places where lasting learning is unlikely to take place.
Building capacity for kindness is one of many interrelated tasks of social-emotional and character development. It is related, in part, to our ability to detect and understand signs of different feelings in others, our sense of responsibility and compassion, and the organizational and interpersonal skills required to carry out actions in others’ interest. I recently accompanied my 19-month-old grandson to “story time” at the library with about 15 other toddlers and infants, and, during cleanup, he kindly went over to a younger, less mobile child to put her shaker toy in the bucket for her. Sure, in the process, he stepped on several innocent bystanders, and, in taking the shaker, he caused at least as much consternation as kindness. But the expression on his face was one of kind helping, and it never changed, despite the youthful carnage he caused. Our task for him is to nourish what he already has and help make his intentions and actions more congruent—and also to make sure we look carefully and accurately at his facial expressions, so that we don’t misinterpret acts of kindness as larceny, with a sentence to time-out or other kiddie purgatory.
There is no easy, singular path to teaching kindness. It is part of our emotional intelligence and it occurs as part of our social-emotional and character development. It can be delayed due to maltreatment early in life, and it can be derailed by victimization later in life. Regardless, two key principles of how one teaches kindness are to promote empathy via service and to start local and build outward to global. Give people systematic opportunities to do good for others in ways that can be successful and increasingly challenging. Give them the preparation and understanding needed before the task—explain why the act of kindness is needed (or let them find out via their own research and inquiry), rehearse the actual behaviors necessary (such as how to reach your intended helpee without trampling everyone in your path)—and provide opportunity for reflection afterwards, so that the feelings that accompanied the act can be accurately processed.
All this can be started very early in life, and it starts locally, at home with siblings, with parents, and even with taking care of one’s books and toys and games with kindness and caring. It extends to peers in day care and preschool, and to extended family. In school, it becomes part of how the classroom runs well, with cooperative learning, and with kindness and caring to the school environment. Gradually, attention can shift to the unfortunate and neglected and voiceless in one’s neighborhood and surrounding communities—up close and personal experiences that have an emotional charge essential for building deep empathy and promoting kindness. As children enter the teen years and are more entrenched in formal operational thinking, they can benefit from extending their kindness to causes that are more distant, more global.
Yes, kindness can be taught, but it is more appropriate to consider it as something already present that requires nurturing. One thing we know from horrific experiences of genocide: kindness may be suspended by some, but it cannot be extinguished. It is a defining aspect of civilized human life. It belongs in every home, school, neighborhood, and society.
By talking about kindness and recognizing it as it occurs, we highlight it as something worthy. It is a natural inclination to make kind choices, and it feels good too. Once, while leading a conversation with a class of 8th graders in the Bronx, NY, I asked if any had ever reached out to help someone they did not know. Many shared experiences from the neighborhood, recounting stories such as helping a woman from a neighboring building carry her groceries up three flights of stairs, volunteering to walk alongside an elderly man as he crossed a busy street, and standing up for a kid who was being hassled by some other kids. Everyone sitting in the circle that day felt good in the telling and in the listening to each other’s stories of good deeds done. The class came to a collective consciousness that it feels good to offer kindness to others, especially if you’re acting from an authentic place, rather than from a place of obligation.
Brazilian educator and social activist Paolo Freire taught people to appreciate what they already knew—to take control of their own knowledge and to create their own educations through a process he called “naming the world.” We can name the world of kindness by providing opportunities for young people to volunteer. Working in a soup kitchen, visiting a senior citizen’s home to spend time with someone who might be feeling alone, and taking part in a fundraiser to help others in need are three ways to do so. When we provide opportunities for young people to practice kindness toward others and invite them to talk about the experience, they internalize the truth in the phrase to give is to receive.
We’d all like to teach someone to be kind, but let’s consider a moment. Some people can never be taught to be kind, no matter how hard you might try. For example, efforts to teach psychopaths how to be kind have backfired. The psychopaths simply become more adept at manipulating other people.
Sometimes, then, the better part of kindness is not to presume everyone can be taught kindness.
On the flip side, there are people who are naturally very empathetic. Their psychic pain when others are hurting can push them into depression or burnout. They can be like candy for manipulative people. (“Come on, Deirdre—you know how much it hurts me when you don’t pick up my dirty dishes.”) If you try to teach overly empathetic people to be kind, you inadvertently worsen one of their most troublesome traits. They would find it even more difficult to escape feelings of guilt when they aren’t making other people happy.
Sometimes then, it’s best not to presume everyone needs to be taught kindness.
Nowadays, some kids grow up in rough environments that call for firm street smarts. Others literally grow up in a war zone. Unilateral teachings of “kindness” might strip these kids of the tough exterior they need to survive—the equivalent of declawing a cat and letting it lose in the woods.
Sometimes then, it’s best to realize that kindness is not a uniformly helpful quality.
Kindness has great benefits. But if we teach it, we must reach beyond the superficial and emphasize that notions of kindness can both help and hurt. Kindness is a quality that must always be balanced with realism and discernment. Truly, kindness is a double-edged sword.