If you happen upon our home in a quiet corner of Kent in England, you’ll see two colourful rainbow paintings in our front window. Like children from across the world, our two boys painted these displays to symbolise a sense of collective hope and connectivity to friends and strangers amidst the coronavirus pandemic. Similarly, on Thursday nights, like many in our community we’ve stood proudly on our doorstep, clapping for key workers and those in the National Health Service who are on the frontlines of the crisis.
Whilst these acts vary in style, similar displays of kindness for the collective good are happening all across the globe. As children engage in them more widely, we have a great opportunity to help them understand how empathy, compassion and solidarity play into long-term social change, orientated around ideas of social justice, fairness and equality.
Almost overnight, much of our society became motionless. Most children stopped going to school, after-school activities were halted, events cancelled or postponed, and days out replaced by time at home. New conversations about compassion and empathy have sprung up in these radically-different circumstances. Beneath the sheen of anxiety, fear and concern, we are inundated by stories of kindness, voluntary action and everyday heroism.
Children are exposed to these stories, and many are actively participating in such acts, from paintings and messages of hope to helping to prepare food parcels for those who are most vulnerable, or are self-isolating without enough support. But ‘teaching’ children about kindness is far from straightforward, as my research shows.
In conducting a study around giving and kindness to strangers with over 150 children aged 4-8 years old in the UK, I and my colleagues found that children are, more often than not, naturally kind and inclined towards social justice. For children, kindness is more than an individual act to celebrate; it’s also an embodiment of a set of behaviours, actions and values that are rooted in ideas of fairness and empathy - the building blocks of social justice, equality and democracy. As one six-year-old child told us: “If you are not kind to everyone, then you are just not kind.”
However, in our research we also found that, whilst children are regularly engaged in acts of charity and collective kindness from an early age in school, at home and in their communities, less than 20% of our sample were given the opportunity to engage in their giving decisions in a meaningful way, or indeed to understand why they are giving. As one five year old child commented: “We gave food at the Harvest festival; I think God must be hungry.”
Whilst we as a society may wish to establish helping others as a ‘habit’ for children, without critical engagement in such actions we undermine the very purpose of collective kindness, since we don’t engage children in understanding the underlying causes which result in the social injustices that we - and they - want to solve. Such an approach with younger children also underestimates their capabilities for engaging in social issues actively and critically.
We found that the children we talked to in our research were critically curious about these broader and deeper questions. Empowered by careful exploration of the charities and causes that appealed to them, many children continued to explore and reflect on their own views and behaviours, and those of the people around them, well after our project ended.
We saw that many children do take a critically-conscious approach in their acts of kindness in ways that are deeply rooted in social justice and ideas of equality. For example, an eight-year-old child, inspired by her engagement in litter picks, ended up championing a local campaign to introduce more recycling bins in her community that included fundraising and lobbying her local Member of Parliament.
How can we use these findings to explore the social and political importance of kindness with our children?
Kindness starts with appreciation.
Following government guidance to distance ourselves and stay at home has considerable potential to transform our ways of life. For too long, many of us have filled our children’s time with formal schooling, extra-curricular activities and endless lists of things to consume, which are often unsustainable. The ‘lockdown’ reminds us that gifting time and attention to one another, and reflecting on what really matters, are essential.
Kindness starts with this capacity to identify with others, putting yourself in their shoes, and appreciating them. This can be uncomfortable, because it highlights our own vulnerabilities and the vulnerabilities of others, including health issues, poverty and environmental inequalities. But it also offers a unique opportunity to explore the importance of kindness on a one-to-one level, such as in the family and home, and on the broader level of kindness in communities, countries and the global environment – including, for example, appreciating the value of key workers in the NHS and elsewhere.
Secondly, we can help children to make connections by discussing which causes or actions they support or engage in, how and why. For example, if a child is encouraged to paint a rainbow and place it in their window, the task can be little more than a fun art activity. However, if they can be engaged in a discussion about the symbol of the rainbow and why it matters, the experience becomes more meaningful. Forging these connections at a young age roots children’s kindness in their often innate, socially-orientated behaviours.
This requires an emotional and intellectual shift in the way many adults think about how they talk to children, and about children’s roles as citizens. Instead of viewing children simply as ‘future actors,’ such an approach views children as current and present citizens, capable and competent in forming their own views and engaging in social action. In turn this helps them to develop a greater understanding of the world around them.
Citizenship isn’t just a matter of personal responsibility or even participation in the community; it also includes the development of skills to assess the challenges of our time critically, and to imagine what a new and different future could look like. This is true for both children and adults.
Encouraging critical curiosity.
Implicit to making the connections between acts of kindness and questions of causation is a critique of how society is structured, and how we and others can either reproduce or challenge inequalities. Thus, children can begin to understand that they are not simply passive recipients within the status-quo, but active and empowered current and future agents of change.
Indeed, Joel Westheimer, a prominent Professor in Democracy and Education at the University of Ottawa, argues that a fair, just and democratic society relies on educating children who can both “participate and think about the root causes of problems and ideals of justice.” For example, we can teach children to support food-banks, but without developing the skills to evaluate why they exist, we may normalise the idea of charity as a sticking plaster for food poverty, instead of simultaneously questioning the systemic injustices that lie behind the rising use of food-banks and other, similar projects.
Acts of kindness and charity, especially at a community level, provide a real space for children to explore these issues in a proactive, positive way. If children are to be recognised as the capable and powerful social actors they are, then it’s imperative to provide them with meaningful opportunities to explore and express their agency in the world. The Covid-19 pandemic will pass, so let’s not waste the opportunity to use the extended time we’re spending with our kids to do just this - and to continue to do so in the future as part of the climate and other movements.
Today our children may be painting rainbows, standing in their doorways clapping for frontline workers and embracing a sense of collective kindness, but tomorrow we want them to be the ones who question and keep on questioning: why should they settle for anything less than a society that’s built around kindness, solidarity and sharing?
Alison Body’s new book is “Children's Charities in Crisis: Early Intervention and the State,” published by Policy Press.