We need to teach children what kindness means

A parent’s perspective with Maria Byrne

The theme for Catholic Schools Week this year is ‘Catholic Schools: Called to Serve’. I had a good browse on the catholicschools.ie website as I wanted to bring some of the spirit of the week into our own home and this website is bursting with projects, pictures and novel ideas for all age groups.

There are activities and discussions around the concept of service: serving others with love, kindness, joy, truth and justice. I particularly liked the segment that looked at the difference kindness can make in the lives of people we interact with.

As I get older, if there is one good quality that I find myself admiring more in people, it has to be kindness. The actor Charlie Chaplain once said: “We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness.”


Ironically, Chaplain had difficulty expressing his own emotions to his children and found it difficult to show affection. Even in these modern times, when positive feedback to children is viewed as a better option than strict discipline, some parents find it difficult to show their softer side and to bring more kindness and compassion into their family relationships.

When Pope Francis addressed a group of young people on his recent trip to the Philippines, he concentrated on the significant contribution that they could make to the life of their country. He spoke of the challenges that would face them including that of always acting with fairness, honesty and integrity. “One of the greatest challenges young people face,” said Pope Francis, “is learning to love.”

It’s funny how the Pope viewed this as the greatest challenge. Every second song on the radio is all about love and how love makes the world go round.

Even my four-year-old son is constantly teasing his sisters by proclaiming loudly that they’re “in love”. They might have shown slight interest in some boy, but that’s more than enough for him to draw his childish conclusions.

Even when it comes to debate on the redefinition of marriage, the message tweeted on Twitter by one politician was “Spread the love” with few calls to actually examine what this huge change entails for Irish society.

I think when parents are trying to teach children the true meaning of love, it’s hard to get away from the Hollywood image of the hero and heroine walking into the sunset arm in arm. Pride and Prejudice’s “You have bewitched me body and soul” sounds much more romantic than “would you like a cup of tea, love?” If I was a love-struck young teenager, I know which I’d prefer.

It’s the parent’s task to show children that love can be sweet words, but true love is more about small, seemingly insignificant, acts of kindness and care.

The resources for Catholic Schools Week impressed me because they dealt with the very practical aspects of love and kindness.

Sometimes, we instruct children what to do without giving them concrete ways of carrying out our wishes. “Be nice to your sister,” is pretty vague and unlikely to result in any change in a child’s behaviour.

A chart with suggestions for children which is described in terms of a mission is much more likely to yield results. It includes ideas that involve acts of kindness like including another child in schoolyard games or making a card for a friend or relative.

These materials on www.catholicschools.ie are aimed for use at home, school or parish and can be adjusted to suit the particular situation.

Fostering kindness starts when a child is very small and is only learnt by example. Even a six-month-old can learn how to stroke a puppy or blow a friendly kiss.

My husband’s way of showing he cares is very practical. He’ll give flowers now and again, but it’s the small things that I really appreciate – breakfast in bed on his day off, going out in the rain to the shop just to get my favourite bar of chocolate or just putting a cup of coffee down beside me when I’m too busy working to take a break.

What has really charmed me recently is seeing my four-year-old son following in his daddy’s footsteps with assurances that he’ll look after me or that he’ll help my husband with the laundry or the garden or whatever task is outstanding.

My eight-year-old daughter will often appear at my side with a little home-made card with simple words of love.

I notice that when my husband and I are discussing anyone in less than complementary terms, our children soon begin to echo our tones. It’s important to model the kind of positive behaviour we want to see in our children. There’s a cruelty and harshness that has crept into social interaction that we don’t want our children to develop.

The Catholic Schools Resource Book quotes Aristotle’s definition of kindness as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper, but for that of the person helped”.

Long after Catholic Schools Week is over, there are resources on the website to assist parents to guide their children in their call to serve and particularly to live that call though kindness and practical action.

I really recommend having a look.