The quote above comes from the famous Aesop’s fable of the Lion and the Mouse.
Here’s the short story, in case you’ve forgotten it or never heard of it.
A Lion lay asleep in the forest, his great head resting on his paws. A timid little Mouse came upon him unexpectedly, and in her fright and haste to get away, ran across the Lion’s nose. Roused from his nap, the Lion laid his huge paw angrily on the tiny creature to kill her.
“Spare me!” begged the poor Mouse. “Please let me go and some day I will surely repay you.”
The Lion was much amused to think that a Mouse could ever help him. But he was generous and finally let the Mouse go.
Some days later, while stalking his prey in the forest, the Lion was caught in the toils of a hunter’s net. Unable to free himself, he filled the forest with his angry roaring. The Mouse knew the voice and quickly found the Lion struggling in the net. Running to one of the great ropes that bound him, she gnawed it until it parted, and soon the Lion was free.
“You laughed when I said I would repay you,” said the Mouse. “Now you see that even a Mouse can help a Lion.”
The moral of the story is that no act of kindness is ever wasted.
This fable came back to me as I read an article in The Atlantic, Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids, and Start Raising Kind Ones, by Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant.
The Grants start off by noting that there is a disconnect between what parents say they want for their kids – more than 90 percent say one of their top priorities is that their children be caring, and what kids say their parents want for them – 81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.
The Grants note that in many developed societies, parents now pay more attention to individual achievement and happiness than anything else. Other parents subtly discourage kindness, seeing it as a source of weakness in a fiercely competitive world.
Kids pick up on all of this. They see their peers being celebrated primarily for the grades they get and the goals they score, not for the generosity they show. They see adults marking their achievements without paying as much attention to their character.
So the Grants ask, “how can we do better?”
One change they made was that at the end of the day instead of just asking how their kids did on a test or in a soccer game, they needed to demonstrate that caring is a core value by also asking what they did to help others. This ultimately encouraged the kids to actively look for opportunities to help.
In many ways, it’s just a matter of reinforcing our natural inclination to help.
Research shows that children are naturally helpful—even the smallest ones appear to show an innate understanding of others’ needs. By the time they are a year and a half old, many children are eager to help set the table, sweep the floor, and clean up games; by the time they turn two and a half, many will give up their own blanket for someone else who is cold.
The Grants also encourage their kids to seek friends who are kind and compassionate.
But a key takeaway from the article is that being kind and compassionate is not mutually exclusive to having a successful and fulfilling life.
Quite a bit of evidence suggests that children who help others end up achieving more than those who don’t:
- Boys who are rated as helpful by their kindergarten teacher earn more money 30 years later.
- Middle-school students who help, cooperate, and share with their peers also excel—compared with unhelpful classmates, they get better grades and standardized test scores.
- The eighth-graders with the greatest academic achievement, moreover, are not the ones who got the best marks five years earlier; they’re the ones who were rated most helpful by their third-grade classmates and teachers.
- Middle schoolers who believe their parents value being helpful, respectful, and kind over excelling academically, attending a good college, and having a successful career perform better in school and are less likely to break rules.
In other words, the research seems to support the moral of the story of the lion and the mouse. All those acts of kindness by the students were not wasted but led to higher achievement later on.
But sometimes the rewards of kindness can be more immediate. In one experiment, toddlers received Goldfish or graham crackers for themselves, then were invited to give some of the food to a puppet who “ate” them and said “yum.” Researchers rated the children’s facial expressions, and found that sharing the treats appeared to generate significantly more happiness than receiving them. And the toddlers were happiest of all when the treats they gave came from their own bowl, rather than from somewhere else.
The Grants conclude that the real test of parenting is not what your children achieve, but who they become and how they treat others.
It’s great advice, and in my mind would lead to creating less stress for kids, and their parents. Being kind and compassionate is much easier to control than how a child does on a test or in a soccer game, and apparently being kind has both short and long term benefits.
*image from Aesop’s Fables