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Cultivating Kindness

May 9, 2009 | by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.Assoc.

Tools for inspiring our kids to stretch beyond their comfort zones and become givers.

Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev tells the story of a man who dies and is shown both heaven and hell. In hell he sees everyone sitting together at a long table to eat their meal. However, the only utensil each person has to use is a spoon that is so long that it can't fit into the user's mouth. Everyone is starving.

Next stop is heaven. Here he sees the same scenario --people sitting together for a meal at a long table with these enormous spoons. But here everyone uses his long spoon to feed the person across from him.

Hell is where people are self-absorbed. When everyone is looking out for each other, that's Heaven.


Cultivating kindness is central to Judaism. The Talmud says that "Love your neighbor as yourself," [Leviticus 19:18] is the fundamental principle of the Torah.

Raising a mensch is more than training our kids to say please and thank you; it's nurturing the Divine image within our children. Instilling the trait of kindness is one of the primary ways of being like God whose essence is giving.

It's by no means easy teaching our children to get out of themselves, to rise above their own wants and needs that seem to be always of the utmost urgency. And it sure doesn't help when so much around us bombards us with the opposite message.

Raising children who proactively seek to give requires a deliberate training program that inspires action and fosters empathy. That's one of the reasons why the Torah actually commands us to love our neighbor, proscribing a list of actions to perform even when we don't feel like doing them.

Acts of kindness, even when they stem from less than the best of motivations, help us internalize the trait of compassion, developing us into true givers.

While any act of kindness our kids do for others is considered chesed, the real challenge is teaching our children to stretch beyond their comfort zones, inspiring them to go against their nature. That's where the real growth begins. There are few greater moments of deep-seated nachas and pride than the times when our kids go out of their way to make someone feel good.


  1. Loving-kindness starts at home.

    Train youngsters to be aware of who needs help in the family. Does Dad need someone to open the door for him? Does Mom need her glasses? Does the baby need his rattle? Instead of telling children to help, ask them to look around and see who needs what. When they spot an opportunity to do an act of loving-kindness, praise them lavishly –- not only for doing the act, but especially for finding the opportunity. This will help children to be on the look-out for others, increasing their sensitivity to the needs and feelings of people.

  2. Model acts of loving-kindness and invite children to join you.

    Involve the children as much as possible in your acts of loving-kindness. When a new neighbor moves onto the block or when an elderly person is ill, bake some cookies and have the kids write a card, arrange them in a basket and carry them over to the new folks. When a sibling is sick, train the others to care for him. Tell them they are doing the great mitzvah of bikur cholim, caring for the sick. Have them bring books or food to the ill child or have them play with him or her. Praise lavishly.

  3. Teach children to be good hosts and hostesses.

    When they have friends over, teach the children to offer food and drink, to let their friends choose the games ("because you're the guest today"), to give them the first choices or the best choices of whatever is available and so forth. Praise lavishly when the friends have left.

  4. Read inspirational stories of people who have helped others in small and large ways.

    Tell stories at the dinner table about acts of compassion and kindness that you've read about or heard about -– let the children know that this is what you value. A good resource is the book Love Your Neighbour by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin, which explains in simple language how to act with kindness to our fellow human beings through stories and illustrations.

  5. Get as excited about hearing about your children's acts of loving-kindness as you get about the good grades he gets in school.

    Make a big fuss. Also, when the child's report card states that he displays good sportsmanship or social skills, show as much enthusiasm as you do for an A+ in math.

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