My son emailed me a clip from ESPN titled “Danny’s Day” that touched me deeply. Danny Keefe, 7, is a high school football team water coach. Little Danny calls out, “Do you need a water?” But it is very difficult to understand his words. Danny had a brain bleed after birth and suffers from apraxia, a miscommunication between the brain and muscles in the mouth. His father shares that the doctors were extremely pessimistic about Danny’s prognosis. “They said ‘whatever you do, don’t expect much. He may never walk. He may never talk.’” (Watch the video below.)

Danny defied the odds. He has not only come to love life, he loves to dress colorfully as well. Since the age of two Danny insists on wearing a button down shirt, jacket, tie and often a fedora. In school, kids have made fun of Danny and bullied him. They could not understand his words; they could not understand his attire. “Hey, listen to this kid, he’s speaking Chinese!” they mocked. Danny’s mother cries as she describes his request to bring a world globe to school to show that he really does come from the same country. Danny is eager to make friends but kids in school have acted in hurtful ways. They took off Danny’s hat and threw it into the mulch and then they threw mulch on his hair. Danny looks into the camera and says that this made him feel very sad.

Danny’s older brother Tim and his best friend, Tommy Cooney, play on the Bridgewater Badgers. Tommy is team quarterback. When he heard about the bullying Tommy decided to do something to boost Danny’s spirits. He got his football teammates and friends to declare ‘Danny Appreciation Day’. They dressed like Danny, wearing suits and hats and cheered his name, “Danny, Danny!” A fire truck came to pick Danny up and brought him to their school. The boys surrounded him with friendship; played football with him. When asked why they did this, Tim and Tommy responded: “To show that he’s a person too. He may dress differently or talk differently but he has feelings.” Danny describes the moment as “The most best day.”

The story went viral. Danny and Tommy were interviewed on TV. Tom Brady offered them tickets to the Patriots season finale commenting that we can all learn from the way these boys stuck up for their friend. One year later Danny is described as happy, feeling confident and still enjoying his job as water coach.

We all want to raise such kind kids who take a stand against bullying and show incredible compassion. Are we succeeding? Why does it sometimes seem as if we are surrounded by selfish, self-absorbed kids?

The Message at Home

A group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education led by Dr. Richard Weissbourd released the following information based on a study they conducted: About 80% of the youth in the study said that their parents were more concerned with their achievements or happiness than whether they cared for others. The interviewees were also three times more likely to agree with the statement that ‘my parents are prouder if I get good grades in my classes than if I’m a caring community member in class and school.’

Only 20% of kids felt that their parents genuinely believe that caring for others is a greater priority than acquiring happiness or achievements.

Parents may believe that they’re sending the right message but only 20% of kids interviewed felt that their parents genuinely believe that caring for others is a greater priority than acquiring happiness or achievements. We are sending our children a mixed message: Yes, we want to raise moral and kind kids, but a successful, happy child is the real goal.

Perhaps we’ve become too consumed with our children’s accomplishments, neglecting the responsibility we have to mold them into more compassionate beings. In a world where there is great pressure to perform, maintain a high grade average, and join after school activities and sports teams, where does kindness fit in? In our selfie society, how can we help them refocus on the needs and feelings of others?

Dr. Weissbourd and his team (Making Caring Common) recommend the following five tips to raise moral, caring children:

  1. Make caring for others a priority. Help children balance their needs with the needs of others.
  2. Provide opportunities for children to practice caring and gratitude. Daily repetition makes caring second nature.
  3. Expand your child’s circle of concern. Challenge your child to learn to care about someone outside his circle.
  4. Be a strong moral role model and mentor. This means that parents practice being caring, honest and fair. We demonstrate how we want our children to live with others.
  5. Guide children to manage destructive feelings. Dr. Weissbourd points out that our ability to care for others is often overwhelmed by negative feelings like shame, envy or anger. We need to help our children learn how to cope with these feelings productively.

Here are some added strategies I suggest to help our children grow kinder:

1. Have you stressed grades and achievements over character?

This includes our emphasizing a child’s need to be happy. Many parents have told me “the main thing is my kid’s happy.” What about our child’s need to grow into a kinder human being? Pay attention to your child’s interactions and how he treats others. Look beyond test scores, trophies and accomplishments. Happiness cannot be acquired at the expense of a child’s soul.

2. Demonstrate Gratitude

Selfishness grows when we have eyes only for ourselves. Children can live in a home for years and hardly hear parents express appreciation to one another. Making dinner, driving carpool, taking out the trash, food shopping, providing for clothing and family vacations should never be taken for granted. Just because we are ‘supposed’ to fill certain roles does not mean that we can take each other for granted. When children see us appreciating each other they understand that caring is a normal part of family life.

3. Don’t Feed Arrogance

When kids dispose of friends easily or ignore invitations to birthday parties and sleepovers because the other child is unpopular and presumed to be a ‘loser,’ arrogance grows. Food servers, housekeepers, babysitters, bus drivers and doormen are examples of people who interact with our children almost daily but are often allowed to be treated shabbily; their feelings overlooked. Children should never assume that it’s ok to be unkind. The same applies to the way parents and other family members are treated. We should expect respectful tones and actions. An environment where parents are deemed annoying but convenient is a home that breeds chutzpah-disrespect. And in a place of insolence, empathy cannot flourish.

Kindness does not come automatically. A child may possess a compassionate character but without daily interactions and role models the sensitive spark within will dim. It is up to us to nourish our children’s souls and teach them that there is a world beyond high grades and achievements. This is the world where we can touch another, lift their spirits and allow them to soar. How much greater we will be as we soar along with them.

Click on the video below to watch “Danny’s Day”