Help children choose kindness

Read about some great celebrations, conversations, and books to help children choose kindness.

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
— The Dalai Lama

The magical thing about kindness is that it benefits the receiver, and the giver. Being kind to others increases our own feelings of well-being – it makes us feel good about ourselves and improves our outlook on life. Kind and compassionate children tend to have more positive connections with their peers, higher academic achievement and a greater sense of happiness.

He aroha whakatō, he aroha puta mai.
If kindness is sown then kindness you shall receive.

World Kindness Day

This week started with World Kindness Day (13 November), so here's a great opportunity to focus on this essential human quality. This international observance day began in 1998 by the World Kindness Movement. In New Zealand we also have 1st September as Random Acts of Kindness Day, founded in 2005, so that could be another date to consider featuring on the school calendar next year.

Kindness Conquers All red, black and white wall muralKindness Conquers All by Tim Green. CC BY-NC 2.0

Books as empathy engines

We learn kindness through direct instruction and seeing how others, our role models, behave. Another powerful way to increase and develop kindness and empathy is through reading, especially fiction, which helps us connect imaginatively with the experiences of others.

Author Kate Di Camillo put it beautifully in her 2014 Newbery Award acceptance speech when she spoke about making hearts large through story, "hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and of each other. We are working to make hearts that know how to love this world".

Two articulate reading advocates, Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell have both described books as efficient and effective 'empathy engines '.

Children’s books are engines for empathy. They allow us to see through the eyes of others. By transporting us to other worlds they help us to understand our own. — Chris Riddell, UK Children’s Laureate (2015–2017)

Neil Gaiman’s Reading Agency 2013 lecture, Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, argues passionately for the importance of reading and being read to. This fosters the development of empathy, and understanding to make the world a better place.

Empathy, literature, and social action

Having an insight into the feelings of others is a great start, but the next important step is what we do with those feelings and how they translate into positive behaviors.

At a recent UK Bookseller Children’s Conference, psychologist Professor Robin Banerjee from the University of Sussex described 3 elements of empathy.

  1. How you react emotionally to other people’s displays of emotions — such as fear, or distress, or indeed positive emotions such as happiness and joy.
  2. The accuracy and depth of your cognitive insight into other people’s thoughts and feelings — how are other people (who might be quite different from you) likely to see and experience the world?
  3. What you do with those emotional and cognitive reactions: like comforting, helping, and supporting others. The translation of empathic thoughts and feelings into behaviour requires a motivation of kindness and compassion.

His talk was followed by Miranda McKearney who described the initiatives of Empathy Lab, a new organisation focusing on empathy, literature and social action. One approach suggested when using books to develop empathy may be simply focusing on the characters and examining their feelings and emotional growth through the story as well well as readers' reactions.

As we read, our brains are tricked into thinking we’re genuinely part of the story. So the emphatic emotions we feel for characters wires our brains to have the same sort of sensitivity towards real people.
— Miranda McKearney


Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.
R J Palacio

Spreading a message of kindness, tolerance, and acceptance is Wonder by R J Palacio. This debut novel took the children’s literature world by storm in 2012 and has been since followed up with related books including 365 Days of Wonder: Mr. Browne’s Book of Precepts and a picture book We’re all wonders, which the author calls “a haiku version” of Wonder. There is even an eagerly awaited, soon-to-be-released film, Wonder.

At a recent library network meeting, Tina from Kaipara Flats School shared how they read We’re all wonders to every class — a 'One School, One Book' experience. This generated conversations across the school about kindness and also made connections with the school’s values around respect and inclusion. It also tied in nicely with their current inquiry topic about Planet Earth and beyond – a happy alignment of inquiry, literacy, values and school culture facilitated through a picture book.

Wonder has been used as a successful 'One Town, One Book' choice in various cities, and was also the inspiration behind the UK’s Annual Kindness Day and as part of the Diana Award anti-bullying messages. There is a free downloadable resource pack available.

Bullyingfree New Zealand website also has plenty of resources and ideas for activities.

World Kindness Day may just be a single day, but perhaps it can be a catalyst for having a conversation in your library, classroom or school about bringing kindness to the forefront, and doing something practical to encourage, celebrate and reward kindness.

I hope you will have a wonderful year, that you'll dream dangerously and outrageously, that you'll make something that didn't exist before you made it, that you will be loved and that you will be liked, and that you will have people to love and to like in return. And, most importantly (because I think there should be more kindness and more wisdom in the world right now), that you will, when you need to be, be wise, and that you will always be kind.
Neil Gaiman

More about kindness

Our conviction is that in a world defined by connectivity and change, empathy is a key currency. If we want a society or a world of change-makers, where problems no longer outrun solutions, then we have to prioritize empathy because change-making is empathy in action.
Be Fearless Be Kind

Services to Schools' blogposts


Books to develop empathy

We need stories that are bridges and roads, connecting that which we know to that which we do not; stories that are safe harbors and welcoming sanctuaries; stories that are armor and shield, friend and companion; stories that free prisoners, heal the harmed, teach the ignorant and feed our aching souls.
Kelly Barnhill, author of The Girl who drank the Moon, from her 2017 Newbery Award acceptance speech (pdf, 2MB) .

There are countless books that illustrate kindness and empathy building. Even if not catalogued with 'kindness' or 'empathy' as subject headings (or the less obvious 'conduct of life'), it won’t be hard to find elements of these qualities in most books for children and young adults.

Picture Books

Here are a few picture books that come to mind.

  • Each kindness by Jacqueline Woodson — this book has sparked discussion as there is no 'happy ending' after a student is teased unkindly by classmates, but it is all the more powerful for that, and the lesson resonates about doing better at the next and every opportunity.
  • How to heal a broken wing by Bob Graham the work of this Australian author/illustrator always has a gentle, humorous, inclusive approach, and this title is particularly tender.
  • Amos and Boris by William Steig one of my favourites for the timeless message of friendship and kindness, delightful sense of the ridiculous, and the exquisite language.
  • Because Amelia smiled by David Ezra Stein this is a perfect illustration of the ripple effects of kindness, happiness, seeing the good and passing it on.


For fiction, any title that that challenges us to engage with characters and their thoughts and perspectives, challenges and triumphs, will help us enlarge our world-view and increase our understanding of others.


One non-fiction book I’ve recently read is Where children sleep by James Mollison. This book records the stories of children around the world, through unflinching portraits, single paragraph biographies, and photographs of their bedrooms. These 'snapshots' reveal hardships, excess and suffering. Some children have too much, some far too little.

I was shown this book last week by Bernadette at Whangarei Girls’ High School Library who said that it had been hugely popular with the students and had sparked lots of discussion and reflection. It would be hard to read this and not be moved, or to think, “What can I do to help make a difference?”

What titles do you share with students that spark conversations about kindness?


Kindness TED talk — this talk by Orly Wahba includes a short film at the 5-minute mark that illustrates the chain reaction effect of kindness.

TedEd video lesson — Dr Brené Brown describes the difference between sympathy and empathy.

By Jeannie Skinner

Jeannie is a Facilitator in the National Capability Services team with Services to Schools.

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