Eric Wieder could teach a master class in kindness.
He’s been taking lessons since he was in diapers, when he was stump-height to a Christmas tree, and his parents trotted him out to the annual lighting at Queen’s Park.
Now in Grade 6, the 11-year-old has developed an app to help Syrian refugees find a safe and welcoming place to stay in Canada.
Wieder developed a prototype for his app, named “Refug.e,” at the Future Design School, a youth entrepreneurship program he attends on Saturdays at the MaRS Discovery District.
Night after night, he watched news stories about the plight of Syrian families fleeing a violent civil war.
“I just thought, I need to do something about it,” he said.
Caring for others is familiar territory. He’s carried Christmas trees for charity with his Boy Scout group and planted trees for Earth Day.
“I’m the future, so I can’t ruin it,” he said, explaining why he’s compelled to volunteer.
His family embraces the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam, “to repair the world,” said Eric’s father, Marcel Wieder.
“We’re put on this world to do good,” he said. “We try to instill that into our kids, that they have a moral responsibility to help out and to try and make this world a better place.”
Wieder is like many parents who hope to instill empathy in their children.
A Forum Research poll commissioned by the Toronto Star found that kindness was the number one value parents and grandparents hoped to pass on to children.
Thirty per cent of respondents put kindness on top, closely followed by a good work ethic, valued by 25 per cent. Qualities like ambition (8 per cent) and leadership (7 per cent) were followed by curiosity or courage (5 per cent each) and teamwork (4 per cent).
Making sacrifices for other people can lead to happier, healthier children, according to Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard University psychologist and co-director of the Making Caring Common project.
“If you focus on kids being kind and tuning into other people, and less on kids’ day to day moods and how they’re feeling, they’re more likely to have better relationships,” he said. “And those relationships are probably the strongest source of happiness that we have.”
Not only can positive relationships be a source of happiness, they can be an antidote to bullying and aggression.
“At our very core, as human beings, we’re social animals,” said Debra Pepler, a researcher and scientist with York University and the Hospital for Sick Children. “We really can’t survive without connections to other people.”
A leading expert on bullying, Pepler says unkind children are put at a “huge disadvantage.”
“(They) end up on the margins of the social group, where it’s very difficult to learn those skills, because they’re not with the children that have those skills. They’re actually with other children like themselves.”
To counteract that, programs have sprung up like Roots of Empathy, an Ontario-based program that teaches schoolchildren across the world emotional literacy.
For Pepler, social and emotional development is as important as learning to read and write and understand science.
“We need to interact with others and get along with others almost every moment of the day.”