You know that insurance commercial where one person does something kind for a complete stranger while someone looks on. The witness then sees an opportunity for kindness in his or her life and instead of walking away, jumps in and helps out another person. And so on. And so on. I don’t remember the insurance (do you?) but the idea is exactly what I want to talk about: kindness.
Kindness ripples. Kindness rewards.
I’m reading this book by Brene Brown called The Gifts of Imperfection. It’s not a parenting book as much as it’s a book about living a wholehearted life, as she says. Quite inspiring. I wholeheartedly recommend it
She freely talks about the things that get in our way of joy, happiness, love and belonging in order to define and give a “how to” guide to joy, happiness, love and belonging.
In that spirit, what are things that get in the way of kindness?
1. Fear – Fear breeds erratic behavior. It’s hard to be kind when you’re too busy being afraid.
2. Insecurity – Bullies are a prime example. A bully, by being a bully, is hardly kind. Unfortunately, most bullies aren’t sadists, they are simply trying to make themselves feel better by making other people feel worse. It’s the old “I’m OK if you’re not” tactic.
3. Shame – Shame is a belief that “I’m bad.” Sometimes shame makes us hide but often we cover up our shame with lashing out at others, again another iteration of the “I’m OK if you are not” scenario.
4. Vulnerability – Vulnerability is tied up in fear, too. Fear of being hurt physically or emotionally. One way to make ourselves feel less vulnerable is to hurt someone before they have the chance to hurt us. Being unkind is a defense mechanism.
But what does this have to do with being kind? Well, it’s hard to be kind when you don’t feel good inside. So, in that respect it’s hard to model kindness when you don’t feel particularly kind, especially to yourself. Being kind and teaching kindness really starts with you the parent.
If you actively practice being kind with yourself, as in quieting that inner critic who tells you that you aren’t worthy, aren’t (fill in blank) enough, then you can be outwardly kind. Through your kind actions, your children will learn kindness.
I caught myself the other day ripping a book out of my daughter’s clutched hand. I had my reasons – it was dinner time, blah blah blah. What matters is that my hands were not gentle, kind, warm or graceful – all qualities that I aspire to as a parent.
Did I need her to listen? Yes. Did I need her to put the book down? Yes. But I could have handled it differently.
And it struck me: kindness is a practice. We may slip and fall, as will our kids, but it’s something to practice every day.
In the book-snatching scenario above, if I were the little girl who needed to put the book down, I would have liked my mother to come talk to me (not shout across the room) and ask me where I wanted to lay the book down. I would have liked her to “help” me find a sleeping spot for the book. In short, I would have liked a little more kindness.
I’m not saying to be soft on discipline, relax your boundaries or in any way undermine your authority by being kind! It’s just that things can be handled without intimidation and force. As a parent, we can use our power to push our kids or we can use it to inspire them.
Also, it’s hard to be kind when you don’t actually want to be kind. Remember, it’s a practice. It’s a muscle you flex when the pressure is on. And it takes work.
Back to the “how to” part:
1. Get your hands on a baby. Most all children love babies! Plus, babies are wonderful teachers of empathy. As an onlooker, you really have to work at what that baby needs. So, if you have access to a baby, get together and tell your toddler how to watch the baby’s eyes, how the baby acts.
You might have to get really comfortable with the word “gentle” and, for that matter have an understanding baby-mama to work with. That said, babies can shine a bright light on an older child’s empathy and by extension, kindness.
2. Clean house. This is more about teaching stewardship, but you can frame it as being kind to your immediate environment. Children, while little messy tornadoes, actually love order and beauty.
3. Read about kindness. There is a great book called The Kindness Quilt by Elizabeth Wallace that I read to my girls. It actually inspired me to make our own kindness quilt, which is basically a collage “illustrating” kindnesses. I used photos because I can’t sew so it’s not like it involves too much effort. Here is also a great reading list for kindness.
4. Reward kindness. Be sure to point out kindness – in your children or out in the world – when you see it.
5. Practice random acts of kindness. Here’s a great place to start.
UPDATE: Just after we published this there was a story on bully-proofing kids. It’s a great reminder that kindness is a bully shield of sort.
Previous Character Lessons: Wisdom, Love of Learning, Bravery, Open Mindedness, Curiosity, Creativity, Patience, Humor, Hope, Love, Gratitude, Zest, Social Intelligence, Self Control, Grit
photo credit: Modern Home Modern Baby