School Liaisons Luncheon 2018 – Dr. Dale Atkins and Amanda Salzhauer on The Kindness Advantage
by Melanie Wells
It is never too early to teach empathy, and if we would all like a kinder community, the first step is to encourage compassion in our children, said Dale Atkins, Ph.D., and Amanda Salzhauer, MSW, co-authors of The Kindness Advantage: Cultivating Charitable and Connected Children, at the December 4th NYC-Parents in Action School Liaisons Luncheon.
Both speakers drove home an inspiring message, that the instinct to choose kindness can be cultivated. There is no mystery here – the concept is a familiar one. “We all grew up with the Golden Rule,” Ms. Salzhauer reminded the audience, and introducing that humble maxim to the next generation will help us rear children “who are able to grow up happier and better engaged.” One way to achieve that is to consistently model kindness. “No one can be an ideal parent all the time,” acknowledged both women, but through modeling the kind of parents we WANT to be, we can teach our children well.
Both spoke of the path that led them to writing The Kindness Advantage: five years ago, the plan was to write about “how to raise charitable children.” Both Atkins and Salzhauer, who see a lot of children personally and professionally, had noticed that many kids are “not as connected to each other” as would be ideal. In interviewing charitable people, Atkins and Salzhauer found that characteristics such as acceptance, empathy and commitment to others – “the fundamentals” of kindness – were shared in common among such people. Gradually, the book took shape, becoming a unique guide to the simple power of developing empathic, kind young people.
Dr. Atkins, offering an excerpt from the first chapter (“Why Kindness?”) noted that “at its essence, kindness allows us to develop awareness of and sensitivity to others.” She also noted that there is, according to Dr. Ronald Pfaff, author of The Altruistic Brain, a reasonable basis in science to accept the idea “that we are wired from infancy to ‘do the right thing.’” But, she added, “we have to work at it.” She listed concrete acts – paying attention; communicating respectfully; showing compassion for others – that a person can actually do, in order to “work at it.”
Atkins and Salzhauer broke kindness down into components, or “fundamentals:” Acceptance, commitment, connection, empathy, giving, interest, nurturing, observing, questioning, and [being] yourself. With respect to that last item: “We are all unique in the universe,” noted the speakers, a condition “that makes us valuable.” They advised the audience to be prepared to remind their children of that value, to help them realize exactly how they are unique, to notice and to remark upon good behaviors and helpful acts. In so doing, we can help children feel pride in their talents, which in turn, may make them more likely to give of themselves.
Offering an example of how a child can use her talents for good, the speakers told “Sarah’s” story: having a disabled brother who had been left out of clubs, Sarah became aware of other teens just like her brother. Using talents she had at hand (her dancing and her love of cheer squad), Sarah started a “special” cheer squad – a team for people with disabilities, who would now have an opportunity to enjoy what Sarah enjoyed. She founded an organization effort, “The Sparkle Effect,” to help other schools do the same thing. Basing her effort upon her passion for cheering, Sarah helped an entire school become more accepting of the girls who, previously left out, now had their own special team.
It is important to talk to your children about the ideals of kindness that you’d like to see in their approach to others. Teens who are charitable and giving often say their parents explained the concept to them, giving guidance on how to use talents or passions to help others, said Atkins and Salzhauer. Both speakers stressed the importance of talking to children about how their actions make others feel. In teaching children to be charitable, start by talking to them, specifically, about their charitable acts: talk to them about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what the effect on others might be.
Perform kind acts together. As kids grow up and schedules become very hectic, the family might consider spending time together in a volunteer project. Such an approach can reinforce family values, bring families closer together and leave a good legacy. Involve kids in the planning, process, the two urged. Consider adding a service component to a vacation, or “choosing a trip with a purpose.”
Do as you say. “Incorporate more kindness in your parenting,” Salzhauer and Atkins advised, and model for your child precisely what you ask of him. Remember, too, that children may be stressed and may feel anxiety. Kindness from a parent might include supportive efforts like encouraging a child to learn to relax, self-soothe. It can be done through breathing exercises or muscle relaxation exercises or another route to self-calming. There is compelling research, said Atkins and Salzhauer, to show that when kids engage regularly in self-calming exercises, the ability to do so becomes “part of who they are.”
The speakers welcomed questions from the audience, one of which was:
Q: How can we teach kindness to our children with adults in public acting out the very antithesis?
A: A “powerfully genteel” President [George H. W. Bush] just passed, observed the speakers, noting that attention and focus emerged on his ability to “be collaborative” while remaining “very strong.” The speakers pointed out that “behavior in public has changed in the past few years” and that a useful counter-strategy would be to say to your child, “In our family, that’s not how people talk to each other.” There is role modeling, and there is also opportunity to point out modeling (from other adults) of what we want our kids NOT to do. Tell your child he can be kind AND assertive, Atkins and Salzhauer said, adding, “We believe you cannot be too kind, AND you cannot be too strong.” The key to holding both, simultaneously, is empathy. Encourage your child to join you in asking, what makes a person behave that way, and what is going on inside?
For behaviors you don’t want your child to imitate, simply give the firm message: WE DON’T TREAT PEOPLE THAT WAY. And while you’re at it, remember: “The only way this will work, is if it’s true.” Tell them. Then model it, too.
Atkins and Salzhauer wrapped up their inspiring and heartwarming talk with a few last thoughts: “We feel kindness is universal,” they said. Regardless of background, the message is the same: it’s about “smiling at someone in the street, or offering to help a person at a store struggling to reach a box on a tall shelf.” Don’t stop talking to your children about kindness as they get older, Atkins and Salzhauer said. Keep talking about it. Keep observing and noticing what your child does. Articulate your children’s “kindness prowess” and empower them to discover that wonderful capacity for kindness that lies in each of us.
Dale V. Atkins, Ph.D., is a frequent guest psychologist on NBC’s TODAY. She is a licensed psychologist with more than forty years of experience as a relationship expert.
Amanda R. Salzhauer, MSW, has spent many years as a social worker in clinics and private practice, which has given her a deep understanding of children, family and community dynamics.