My blog posts are written to shed light on important character-related topics and themes. I welcome your thoughts on the post below. I’m eager to learn.
Note to reader:
In less than two weeks, Character.org will be celebrating our 2023 National Schools and Districts of Character during our Annual Forum. I recently re-read each school’s application, and there was one word that almost all the schools used a lot.
I wasn’t surprised on how frequently kindness was mentioned, but my curiosity was piqued. I wanted to learn more about this important character strength. The first step I took was to read Houston Kraft’s wonderful book Deep Kindness. I then put on my geeky researcher hat and reviewed the scholarship on kindness. And personally, I made a commitment to strengthen my own kindness mindset. I began by asking myself: Arthur, why aren’t you always kind?
What I learned, through my own reflection and the research literature is that there appears to be five compelling reasons why we sometimes have difficulty showing kindness:
#1 – We are too focused on ourselves
Researchers have long established that we’re less apt to show kindness when we are in a hurry or busy. The reality is that very few of us are Good Samaritans all the time. Deadlines, time pressures and other stressors get in our way. We become too self-centered. And though I could not find any empirical or clinical data, I’d argue that people who experience high anxiety are less likely to show kindness to others. Yet what the research does tell us is that acts of kindness can significantly improve our mental health.
#2 – We lack the confidence
Middle school and high school students may not show kindness because they will be overly concerned that their compliment, affirmation, or expression of appreciation will come out wrong. Even as we get older, the prevailing mindset is that it’s a lot easier on the “roads of life” to stay in the safe lane. What’s interesting, however, is the compelling research that acts of kindness can build our confidence and refute that self-conscious voice inside us.
#3 – Our family members and teachers don’t model or emphasize kindness
Several years ago Harvard’s Making Caring Common project released a survey that showed the gap between what parents reported they want for their children and the real messages they convey to their kids. 80% of the youth surveyed reported that their parents are more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others. A similar percentage of youth perceive teachers as prioritizing student achievement over whether their students care for others. Clearly, kindness doesn’t seem to be family priority.
#4 – We only show kindness to family or friends
This past summer I was conducting research on kindness at a religious overnight camp. One of the camp counselors I interviewed told me that when it comes to showing kindness to others she always has difficulty with the “mean girls” in her bunk. When I asked why, the counselor thought it was because the girls didn’t think it was cool to be kind. In addition, there are evolutionary reasons why we will be kind to those in our family but not to those outside our clan.
#5 – We think someone else will show kindness, so we don’t have to
My own research on moral courage often reveals that we don’t stand up or speak out because we think someone else will. Researchers call this “diffusion of responsibility”, and clearly this phenomenon can easily be applied to why some people aren’t kind to others. Too often we say to ourselves, “Yea, I know she looks sad or angry but I’m sure someone else will ask what’s wrong.”
Reflecting on the five reasons highlighted above, I realize that if want to strengthen my own “kindness mindset” I need to address reasons #1 and #4. I can’t allow my work life to impede my commitment to developing daily habits of kindness. I also need to honestly recognize that my “zone of kindness” is too often limited to my family and friends.
What about you?
Which of these 5 reasons speak to you or to the students in your classroom or school?