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An award-winning mom-dad team talked with Noggin about how parents can raise kind (and successful!) kids.
Seven years ago, Adam Grant, an organizational psychology professor at Wharton, published his first book, Give and Take, which argues that the most successful leaders are “givers,” people who help others with no strings attached.
The book became a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller, was one of Oprah’s “riveting reads,” and was translated into 30 languages. But while corporate leaders loved it, the book didn’t help kids learn about giving, and Dr. Grant — who is also the dad to three young children — said he kept getting questions from parents eager to turn their kids into “givers.”
Enter: Allison Sweet Grant, Adam’s wife and co-author.
“Allison had what I thought was an amazing idea, to write a book about a gift box that ends up being in search of a giver,” he told Noggin. Allison said the resulting book, The Gift Inside the Box (published October 2019), is designed to help parents talk with their kids about kindness, generosity, and empathy.
The Grants were kind enough to chat with Noggin about kindness and generosity — and some easy ways parents can raise kind (and successful!) kids.
Noggin: How do you define kindness?
Adam: Kindness is an umbrella term to capture showing care and concern and respect for other people and generosity as being willing to help others.
Noggin: Why is it important?
Adam: We think kindness is necessary for human society to function. It’s hard to have a school where kids feel supported and learn without feeling that their teachers and their classmates treat them kindly. You certainly don’t want to be part of a family where kindness is not a core value. You know, I’ve spent a lot of my career studying workplaces are people are motivated to help each other and finding that that actually makes the teams more productive and creative. If you look around the world, it’s one of the core values. It’s also defining virtue and every major religion around the world.
Noggin: Does kindness actually help kids succeed?
Adam: If you want to predict kids’ academic achievement in middle school, if you go back to their elementary school days, it wasn’t the highest achieving kids who would end up being the most academically successful later. It was the kids who are the kindest…Teaching kids to be kind makes them feel valued. That motivates them and gives them a sense of purpose beyond themselves. It also helps them learn — tutoring or teaching others or explaining homework actually helps to reinforce their own understanding. And so we actually think that teaching kids to be kind is one of the best ways to set them up for success later. But of course, we don’t do it for that reason.
Noggin: You’ve written that more than 90% of parents say they want their kids to be caring, but only 20% of American kids say caring for others is important to their parents. How can parents correct this misunderstanding?
Allison: I think it’s really easy for all parents to fall into the achievement trap. When our kids would come home, the first question we would ask is “How was the test?” or “How did your team do?” But now I find myself always asking a different question first: “Who did you have lunch with?” That leads to a conversation about who their friends are, why they’re friends with those people, what they did on that day to maintain those relationships. And I find it’s a question about the quality of their day.
Adam: One of the things we do at family dinner is we started asking them, at least on a weekly basis, “Who did you help this week?” At first, they said, “Oh, I forgot,” or “No one,” but then, over time, they not only remember it happening, they seem to look for chances to help because they knew we were excited about it and caring about it.
Noggin: When are kids capable of learning kindness?
Adam: One of my favorite experiments with kids actually shows that even preschoolers, as young as three, if you just ask them to be a helper, they really want to earn that identity. They like the idea of being helpful and feeling like they made somebody else’s day a little bit better. I think we want to start talking to kids about kindness as early as they can understand language. But even before that, role modeling is extremely important. We know the kids who are surrounded by parents and teachers and also other kids who are kind are more likely to take that as a cue for how they should behave.
Noggin: What strategies can parents use to emphasize kindness?
Adam: There’s a chance to create more of a fun experience, or even a tradition of kindness. There’s a tradition I love in Denmark, which is called Cake Time. It happens in schools, and once a week, there’s one child who’s supposed to bring in their favorite kind of cake or dessert, and they describe a problem they’re facing and the whole class then engages in first some empathy and then some problem solving around what they can do to help. And so it allows the whole classroom to practice helping. I’ve often wondered if that’s something that can be done in families. We’ve done something that’s probably a little bit easier to our own family, which was an idea Allison had when our kids first started to appreciate receiving gifts.
Allison: We started a family tradition when our kids were very little around gift-giving, which is that when our children receive gifts, whether for their birthdays or for the holidays, that they choose specific gifts to give to children in need also. It’s something that they look forward to, and it’s something that we look forward to. It’s a really easy way to incorporate generosity, at its most basic level, and kindness.
Noggin: If you teach kids kindness when they’re little, does it last? Do they grow into kind grown-ups?
Adam: The most powerful evidence I’ve seen on this is actually from a classic study by sociologists of Holocaust rescuers. These were people who often put their lives at risk to save complete strangers. And the study was comparing them to a group of neighbors who did not step up and become heroes. And when you trace back to their childhoods, one of the things that set the Holocaust rescuers apart was their parents had a very strong focus on teaching concern for others. When they broke a rule, for example, instead of punishing their kids, the parents would explain why their behavior was wrong and how they can make it right. And most of those explanations focused on the impact on others. So these kids were taught early on to think about how their actions affected others and how they could really do right by others. And that seemed to instill in them a very strong sense of care and concern for others. And as they grow into adults, a belief that they had a responsibility to help other people. Instilling these values early can lead people to carry them with them for a lifetime.