When you put it like that, just two little words, it certainly seems simple. And truly, kindness is simple. But it’s not always easy.
I had an epiphany of sorts about kindness just yesterday morning. I was talking with my beans about the difference between being “nice” and being “kind.” As a confirmed word nerd, there is little I love more than a good discussion about a difference in semantics J (see Shades of Gray... Meaning) After working through it in my own (admittedly muddled) mom-brain, I explained to them that being kind means actually “doing” something. Being nice can be as simple as using good manners or smiling hello or letting your sister have the ONE fork that all three kids have decided is their favorite.
Being kind, on the other hand, requires action. The action may be physical, but it can also be verbal. Kindness is reaching out to the child who is standing off to the side on the playground and asking him if he’d like to play. Kindness is scooching over to make room for the child who no one else is making room for. Kindness is standing up for someone who is being teased – letting them know by word and deed that they’re not standing alone. Kindness can seem small to the doer, but to the person on the receiving end, it can feel HUGE. And I truly believe that developing the skill of kindness will build a child’s character like nothing else can.
Choose kindness. It’s a precept – a mantra of sorts – from a tremendous book, Wonder by R.J. Palacio. It is a middle grade novel that far transcends the middle school experience. If I may hop onto my author soapbox for a brief moment, I feel strongly that this book should be required reading for every kid ten and over and every adult, period, especially if you’re a parent.
I won’t go into great detail, but it’s a book about a ten-year-old boy born with grave cranial-facial deformities and his experience of attending school for the first time. There are moments that are painful to read and moments of such hope and beauty it takes my breath away. Needless to say, there was some ugly crying when I read the book – both times.
Wonder was this month’s choice of the book club to which I belong. Now there are times we moms get together and eat snacks and drink wine and spend little if any time actually talking about the book. This was not one of those times. We had a fantastic discussion about kindness and disabilities – seen and unseen – and how kids learn – and unlearn – kindness. It was a discussion that left me both hopeful and afraid. Because the truth is, kids can be unkind. So can adults. This lack of kindness can be unintentional, but many times it is intentional.
Those of us in the book club all have younger children – early elementary and younger. And mid-way through the night, it struck me that kindness is relatively easy at that age. It’s not automatic, but it’s almost natural for younger kids to be kind. To extend themselves and offer help to a friend in need. To overlook or accept a difference in a classmate. But those years don’t last forever. They don’t last nearly long enough. As kids get older, kindness becomes less automatic. Less cool. And less likely to happen. My solution-loving mind played with this idea for hours last night. And I think the solution is – again – simple. Not easy, but simple. The natural instinct toward kindness must be nurtured. It’s like any other developmental skill. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
Is awareness enough? Probably not. Can you force a child to be kind? Absolutely not. I imagine the only thing that might feel worse than having someone be unkind is the knowledge that a kindness was insincere. At this stage, with The Professor, Sunshine and Pinky embarking on a new school year and new adventures in 1st grade, kindergarten and preschool respectively, my plan is to talk about kindness. To call out examples both done by and done to my beans. I’ll make darned sure they know – and feel – kindness when they see it. Because I also think being kind can become a habit. And as my relationship with chocolate (and diet coke) tells me, habits can become addictive.
And I don’t know about you, but to me being addicted to being kind sounds like a pretty good problem to have JBeing considerate of others will take your children further in life than any college degree. ~Marian Wright Edelman