Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Imperative of Kindness

"It's not even that hard to be kind. I don't know why people choose not to be."

One of my daughters, who just turned 13, said that to me yesterday. We had just finished up her parent-teacher conference, which in our middle school is "student-led." Two of Cookie's teachers had praised her for being a great "buddy" to a classmate with special needs--one teacher even said that he hopes his own daughter grows up to be half as good a kid as Cookie.

I told Cookie that while I'm happy she gets good grades, and I'm proud of her for working hard to get them, I'm more proud of her when I hear about her kindnesses. She shrugged off my praise, because she can't fathom being any other way.

Academics are important. Sports and other extra-curriculars are great. But for the most part, good grades come easily to all four of our kids. Cookie can get 90s without really trying, but she has to actually study to get a 98. She gets praise from us for the work, not the grade. We don't give our kids prizes or cash for good report cards, nor do we punish them for a "bad" grade. We expect them to do their best, and they do.

We also expect our kids to be respectful, considerate, and kind. Two of our kids have Asperger Syndrome, and despite the mythology that exists about autism, they are two of the most empathetic, considerate human beings on Earth. Partly because of the Asperger, we talk about social issues a lot in our house. We have dinnertime conversations about how to handle social drama at school. We talk about being inclusive on the playground and at the lunch table. We discuss the difference between spreading gossip and alerting an adult to a problem. We problem-solve together how to handle mean comments and how to stand up for others.

Our family is also very involved in Girl Scouts, which puts a premium on character, in the best sense of the word. Each week at our meetings, the girls and their leaders recite the Girl Scout Promise and the Girl Scout Law:

The Girl Scout Promise
On my honor, I will try:To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.
The Girl Scout Law
I will do my best to behonest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,
and torespect myself and others,
respect authority,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.
You don't have to be a Girl Scout family to do those things, or to expect your kids to be considerate and caring. I think you just have to put a premium on kindness. What works for us is talking about kindness, as well as modeling it. We also provide consequences when our kids aren't being kind.

Recently, we've had a lot of school events where I had the opportunity to meet other parents that I'd never met, even though our kids have been in school together for years. I met two different moms whose daughters I know to have a history of bullying classmates. Both moms seemed incredibly nice. They were friendly, chatty, and volunteering their time.

How do nice parents end up with mean kids? I don't know. And I don't know if they're aware that their daughters have been, at times, absolutely cruel.

I do know that while kindness is easy, so is cruelty. My mother had special talent for targeting the most vulnerable aspect of a person. Emotionally damaged from a young age, she wielded verbal jabs as a shield.

I slip into mean thoughts as easily as the next person. Sarcasm is my mother tongue, and I work hard to filter what I say. When I find myself thinking judgmental thoughts, I try to stop myself, and remember that I don't know what's going on in everyone else's lives. I don't know their stories, their histories, their baggage.

"It's not even that hard to be kind. I don't know why people choose not to be."

Why do people choose not to be kind? There are social rewards to being unkind, whether you're a seventh grader dissing someone at lunch or an adult making snarky comments on Facebook. Being unkind can "prove" status. Being unkind can perk up a flagging self-esteem. Being unkind can get me a laugh.

I'm not a perfect parent, and I don't have perfect kids. I am well aware that they have each been unkind--usually to their own siblings--on various occasions. Lord knows I've made more than my fair share of mean comments, including plenty here on this blog. We are human. We make mistakes.

And then, I hope, we try to do better.

The quote at the top of this post is from the award-winning novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Scholastic recommends Wonder for grades 5 through 7.

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