Is anyone teaching kindness?

I have been there before. I am at the play area watching Re bake a fresh mudcake, lace it with leaves and petals, when in marches a tiny bully. I almost see an evil gleam in his eye as he stomps all over Re’s creation, kicking some sand in his face. Re doesn’t know whether he is crying because of the sand in his eyes or the fact that his creation has been destroyed. The meltdown that ensues is entirely my problem of course, because the other child’s parent is just looking blank-faced, as if to suggest this is what children do.

Re has always been a softie, he never attacks or hits back, and perhaps his innate gentleness has something to do with growing up around animals. He has however regularly got bullied, from as early as nine months. His kindness seems old-fashioned when I see other kids around him, and I am supposedly living in what one could call utopia. I often feel tempted to ask Re to fight back, but then I realize he would really wonder what was wrong with me.

I have often wondered whether a child is inherently good-natured or whether it is a trait that can be developed. What makes little kids mean, and why are some meaner than others? Is it inherited, is it what they are watching or eating, is it their home environment? I don’t really have the answers, but I do know that kindness needs to be taught as much as survival skills.

However, teaching children to care about others is not simple. Kindness also needs practice. It doesn’t come from nowhere. Kindness is more show than tell. Our children are always watching us, and most of what they learn is by observing. I realize I need to pay special attention to how I interact with family members, friends, the invisible people and the world at large. Re is quick to point at my “angry voice” or “shouty voice” from time to time. I guess I am the shrew he was born to tame.

If you linger long enough around kids, inevitably someone ends up being teased, left out of a game, or bossed around. It’s as if children are constantly testing out being nice, mean, or silly to see how their peers react. Preschool, the stage where Re is at, is a time when kids begin to figure out group dynamics. When I watch them, it’s obvious that a lot of the insults, grabbing, and put-downs are part of this experimentation. If I do x, will my friend do y? And if a child gets his way by intimidating, he/she may just raise the bar.

Very often, children display complete disregard for the feelings of others and unless the other person displays overt signs of hurt, don’t even notice it. On the other hand, I often see parents monitoring their kids’ moods all the time. Why are you sad today? Are you upset about something? This obsession with their feelings makes children think about themselves constantly, and not about that new kid in their class who is lonely, or that one who is being bullied.

When we focus too much on our children’s feelings and too little on their behavior towards others, we are also telling them that we value their feelings over others’ and that is a dangerous situation.

There has been a steady but palpable bullying movement in the school where I teach. Yes, things are still camouflaged as groupism and not very overt or malignant, but there are sure signs. Whenever I meet student parents, they are all eager to know about their children – how well they are doing, how much have they progressed, what can they do to get even better at their work. No one is asking about their behaviour. I recently met the mother of a bully who was in complete denial that her son could even be one. It’s as though everything right about him was his doing and everything wrong with him was always someone else’s fault.

Parenting is a long ride and each of our kids will encounter (sometimes even be) the meanies of the world. It’s tempting to jump in and save our kids from every negative encounter. But if we even vaguely understand where the meanness is coming from, maybe we can make sense of it in our own minds, treat it as a part of growing up, and ultimately help them to be kind and compassionate people.

Last week, Re came to me with yet another dilemma:

“Mamma, sometimes M hugs me so tight, I feel I am going to fall.”

“So tell her not to.”

“I did, but she doesn’t listen.”

“So try and push her away gently.”

“But pushing is not a nice thing, no?”

The beautiful thing about parenting is that sometimes, your children show you how to be the person you wish you were.

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 19th January, 2015. You can email me on if you wish to share your thoughts)


16 thoughts on “Is anyone teaching kindness?

  1. Nice article ! I personally feel that bullying is not natural to children but it is a trait picked up by watching and observing what goes around in his living environment. If the child gets a feeling that bullying gives one power, authority and making others look weak he / she may get into this habit. At such times the parents role becomes important. Most kids learn along the way how to deal with bullies but my greater concern is that kindness and concern for others is slowly dying in our society and we need to get it back !

  2. My daughter 7yrs old n she faces lot of bullying , bossing issues. I hv always taught her to be nice n gentle to everyone. My husband feels ,she lacks in fighting spirit n confidence as she tries to be nice n kind.

  3. Nice article. My thoughts really. Kindness, politeness, sharing, manners all seem to be virtues of past.

    And if our children display it and others don’t… makes us and our children the odd people out. As people think that children are not capable or more correctly should not be kind, polite etc

  4. “It’s as though everything right about him was his doing and everything wrong with him was always someone else’s fault.” – isnt it called narcissim ?

    Adults display this vehemently too. where did they learn it from ?

  5. Novels like Lord of the Flies – though fiction – are an indicator that children if left to their own devices can be quite cruel in a survival of the fittest kind of way. From talking to parenting coaches and reading up on psychology, it seems that young kids do tend to be very me-me-me. I see the tendency to boss around or bully quite often in the playground. There may be gentle souls who are the exception.
    I think it’s up to parents to model kindness and guide their children towards being gentle with others and considerate of their needs.

  6. My parents had quite an interesting take on this..they taught me never to bully but they also told me never to come home crying if someone bullied me. So I had to settle scores there and then. Therefore i have an instinct to fight whenever someone bullies me physically or mentally..I’m still figuring out its effects on my personality..

  7. Pingback: On phonics, bullying, art and why Neil Gaiman always has the answers | mommygolightly

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