Let Your Children Teach You About Kindness With This Simple Act

It's as easy as filling a jar with pebbles.

A look inside our family's kindness jar. Photo courtesy of Nevin Martell.

A glass vase sits in a corner of my son’s pre-K classroom. It’s filled with a rainbow of small glass discs and squares. Each represents an act of kindness carried out by one of the students, except for the red ones, which recognize a collective act by the class.

These “kindness pebbles” are rewarded to children when a teacher notices one of them doing something especially helpful or empathetic. Perhaps a child comforted a classmate after he or she fell. Maybe she shared a treasured toy. Or he did extra work during cleanup. The idea is to acknowledge and celebrate kindness in all its many shapes.

When the kindness pebble is awarded, the child who earned it is called to the front of the class and his or her good deed is recounted. Then the pebble is dropped into the jar while the children murmur in appreciative amazement like the little green Martians in Toy Story. It’s a big moment. When my four-year-old son received one, he couldn’t wait to tell his mother and me about it. He radiated joy recounting his act of kindness and how good it made him feel; the recognition for it further reinforced the positive emotion. The two steps are important, because the school is working to develop its students’ desires to be selflessly kind, not kind for the sake of a reward.

Recently, my son created a kindness jar at our house, which he perched on a shelf by the front door along with a box full of tumbled stones and minerals. Soon enough, he was telling his mother and me that we had earned our first kindness pebbles, she for holding his astronaut helmet while they watched a movie and me more helping him with an art project. He let us each pick out a stone or mineral and drop it in the jar, prompting oohs and aahs from the three of us.

It did feel nice to be recognized for a good deed, because it inspired me to pause for a moment and be grateful for all the kindness in my life—both given and received. It made me recognize that every day there’s the opportunity to practice kindness, and we should never pass up the chance to do so. And it was a reminder that what might seem like a small gesture could have a big impact on someone else.

Since then, we’ve given my son kindness pebbles for helping clean up without being prompted and for spontaneously sharing with us. And he decided we all deserved recognition after we hosted a party as a family and did a good job of being kind to our friends who came over. That earned us our first red pebble, which makes me smile every time I pass the jar.

Every family should have a kindness jar: It can help shape your children into empathetic and helpful adults, while reminding parents of the value of such traits. After all, the world needs as much kindness as it can get.

Parenting writer

Nevin Martell is a parenting, food, and travel writer whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, Saveur, Men’s Journal, Fortune, Travel + Leisure, Runner’s World, and many other publications. He is author of eight books, including It’s So Good: 100 Real Food Recipes for Kids, Red Truck Bakery Cookbook: Gold-Standard Recipes from America’s Favorite Rural Bakery, and the small-press smash Looking for Calvin and Hobbes: The Unconventional Story of Bill Watterson and His Revolutionary Comic Strip. When he isn’t working, he loves spending time with his wife and their six-year-old son, who already runs faster than he does.