As a parent, a caregiver, a teacher, or even just a citizen of the world, what kind of people do you hope that today’s children grow up to be? Amid a life-altering pandemic and deep political divisions, we can likely all agree that the world would benefit greatly if children today learn to treat others well.
This rings true for Corky Klimczak, one of the co-directors of the Collaborative for Educational Services’ Growing Gratitude and Generosity (G3) program. “When I ask parents what they want for their children, the answer I hear the most is that parents want their children to grow up to be happy and kind,” she says.
While parents may feel alone and overwhelmed with such an undertaking, the Collaborative for Educational Services and another organization called Camp Kindness Counts are stepping in to lend their support, with funding from the Greater Good Science Center’s parenting initiative.
These two programs are bringing parents and children together to teach them about important character strengths, from empathy to generosity, and then co-creating experiences for those families to practice the skills in the real world. Through these programs, parents are being empowered to help their children develop their character by learning how to be more kind and grateful in a world that desperately needs those qualities.
Making kindness count
For Dhaarmika Coehlo, founder of Camp Kindness Counts, kindness is built in the many small moments throughout our day. She vividly recalls an experience on a train in India, when she shared her newspaper with someone, who shared it with someone else, until the whole train car had gotten a chance to read it—and then it was promptly returned to her. This for her was a communal kindness she had never experienced before. When she had her first child more than 10 years later, the memory returned to her. “I remembered that moment of kindness, and it got me thinking, ‘How can we nurture a culture of kindness in our communities?’”
This is how Camp Kindness Counts was born. The organization, which is based outside of Seattle, provides a variety of opportunities for parents and children to engage in kindness and community building, from a set of self-guided lessons called Kind World Explorers to youth service camps. For example, families might engage in activities like helping animals or cleaning up the environment.
“We hope parents will rediscover their inner strengths and use the tools provided to support the well-being of their children, themselves, and the community around them,” says Coehlo.
How is kindness taught? The idea is to provide a role model while giving opportunities for practice and reflection. Research finds that young people often identify their family members as primary role models when thinking about how to be a good person. When kids then act in kind or helpful ways, having others praise them for being kind can help reinforce that identity. And other research suggests that offering the opportunity for deep reflection can help children learn more from community service.
Simple, research-based practices have opened new doors for families within the program. One parent participant, Ruby, found that the resources provided by Camp Kindness Counts helped to prepare her to talk to her daughter about social-emotional concepts in a more meaningful way. “The conversations that we’re having now at home are more genuine,” she says.
Helping parents nurture gratitude and generosity
Across the country in Northampton, Massachusetts, the Collaborative for Educational Services wanted to find a way to support the parents in their community in their desire to build character in their children. So they developed the Growing Gratitude and Generosity program, or G3. It involves a series of Parent Cafés that run concurrently with children’s programming so that parents can get the support they need while children are also learning about gratitude and generosity.
The program leaders seek to build these skills through literacy-focused activities. Parents and their children read and discuss books that highlight the targeted character strengths. Richard Lerner, a professor at Tufts University and the scientific advisor for G3, recognizes that this opportunity for families to engage together is critical to the program’s success.
“Using books within the context of developmentally nurturant relationships between parent and child served to enhance reading skills and potentially strengthen parent-child relationships while, at the same time, illuminating the importance of the target character virtues for children,” he says. After the program, 93% of families increased their conversations about gratitude and generosity.
Indeed, research suggests that books can be a helpful way to teach strengths like kindness and generosity. In particular, researchers found that children who heard stories about humans sharing, as opposed to sharing by non-human characters or a book not related to sharing, were more generous afterward.
For gratitude, one of the Parent Cafés taught parents about the Notice-Think-Feel-Do framework by Greater Good Parenting scientific advisor Andrea Hussong, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Here, parents learn to ask questions to help their children notice examples of gifts or kindness from others, share their thoughts and feelings about what they noticed, and then do something to show their gratitude.
Expanding your circle of community
Many families want to engage with their children around topics like gratitude and kindness, but the stress and demands of life make it challenging to find the time. These programs not only create a scheduled opportunity for families to focus on character-building, but also connect them to a community of families in the same boat.
Hailey, a young Camp Kindness Counts participant, shared, “Doing Kind World Explorers with others makes me more accountable for a time and a day, and makes it easier not to slack off.”
When families are given a choice to either do their Camp Kindness Counts program alone or with other families, many choose to engage with other families.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this community of families was maintained—and expanded, as the shift to virtual support meant that Camp Kindness Counts was able to engage with families as far away as India.
During the pilot of the G3 Parent Café series hosted by the Collaborative for Education Services, parents were so engaged that they requested additional time together. They were able to brainstorm community service projects, share about successes and challenges, and offer helpful suggestions to each other. The parents even suggested adding an additional session together so that they could celebrate their successes. Communities like this offer social support to participants, which is important because parents with a strong social network tend to have better relationships with their children.
This sense of community also translates to increased community engagement outside of the programs, as well. In G3, families who participate are able to engage in service projects ranging from cleaning up a park to raising money for a local cause. Participants are even encouraged to come up with their own community service, as one family made homemade dog biscuits and walked around their neighborhood giving them out to dogs and meeting neighbors.
“We wanted to support parents to gain skills to introduce and engage their children in community service to nurture the concept that families are part of communities,” says Desiree Lalbeharie-Josias, another of the G3 program leaders.
This aligns with the Notice-Think-Feel-Do framework, because the service projects give families a chance to do something to show their gratitude. One family in the G3 program, a single mom named Amy and her seven and 10 year olds, were struggling to adjust to divorce and a recent move. The family was able to feel more connected to the community by helping families resettling from Africa and serving at a senior center in town.
“The best part is how we feel now that we are part of something bigger, and feel that intrinsic value of gratitude and generosity,” said Amy.
Many families committed to maintaining these family service projects even after the program was over, which is sure to have lasting benefits.
“Service learning with reflection is an evidence-based practice for the development of character virtues like compassion and common humanity,” says Robert Roeser, a professor at Penn State University who serves as a scientific advisor for Camp Kindness Counts.
From character-building to a kinder world
And while these programs are taking small steps to help parents teach their children how to be more grateful, compassionate, and kind, the hope is that they are the start of something much greater.
“I hope that our Kind World Explorers program will help to support the well-being of individuals and nurture a culture of kindness in communities around the world, one child, one parent, and one family at a time,” says Coehlo about Camp Kindness Counts.
And they recognize that such goals will require a community-wide effort, which has led Camp Kindness Counts to reach out and engage with school administrators, pediatrician’s offices, and other family-centered supports in an effort to foster a culture of kindness.
The G3 program had so much success in its pilot program that it was expanded to four other programs in nearby communities, including school and after-school settings. The G3 resources are free and available to the public, and the program leaders hope that more families can use them to increase their connection to each other and their communities.
“We hope for more replications of this program so that more children will have access to learn about gratitude and generosity and will incorporate it into their lives,” says Klimczak.