What is kindness?

I am one of those people whose social media feed is the kind that contains the odd uplifting quote typed with a typewriter on an old bit of paper. I know some people think that they are trite and gushy and occasionally, worryingly, grammatically incorrect, but I find a certain kind of peace and reassurance in some of them (not the grammatically incorrect ones, obvs. Those ones hurt my eyes). Quotes like the Dahl one above get me thinking about the nature of kindness, and how it’s all very well to like and share these quotes, but how many of us can put into practise the message it champions?

As a teacher and as a parent I often have to try to explain what it means to be kind. Every time I try to explain it my definition changes slightly. It’s such a massive, multi faceted thing that it’s no wonder that so many people get it wrong.

I usually start my explanation with the, “treat others as you wish to be treated” schpiel. But then a child will pop up and say, “Miss, I was nice to so-and-so the other day but then the next day he called me fat! So then I called him stupid. And then he pushed me…” and on it goes and there is no kindness in sight.

So, I developed the next level of my explanation: try to focus only on yourown kindness. Children (and many adults) often blame others for their behaviour, “She made me poke my tongue out at her because she poked her tongue out at me.” No, I explain, she didn’t make you do anything. If you just focus on being the kindest person you can be and try to ignore the unkindness of others, then at least you can go to bed at night with a clear conscience.

I’ll often throw the ole, “you get what you give” bit in at this point. Speak to people how you’d like to be spoken to. Give respect and you’ll get it. Listen to others and they will listen to you. Be kind to others and……

But this is the bit that sticks in my throat the most because, as an adult, I find this not always to be true. And I know some of the children I’m talking to will go home and be on the receiving end of unkindness from the very adults who are the most important in their lives for modelling what kindness looks like. I know, through experience, that just because you are kind to someone else does not always mean they are kind to you.

Our society celebrates people who are successful in their careers. But how many of them could say that they have been successful in being kind too? Do they speak to the people who are supposed to be learning from in the way which they’d like to be spoken to? Do they listen to others as they expect to be listened to? Have they treated people kindly on their way to their success? The answer, in my experience, is no. Our society is unkind.

Worse, some teachers and parents I’ve met aren’t kind. They are surprised when children don’t speak to them with respect or behave in the way they want them to. But the way they talk to the children is full of disrespect and unkindness. “Don’t shout! I’ve heard a mother shout to her child. “Be kind!” My mind boggles at this – how can a child learn kindness from these mixed messages?

When explaining kindness to children I tell them all of the above but i also tell them this: I often think, when I’ve been hurt or upset or surprised by someone’s unkindness, that I ought to toughen up a bit. Get a thicker skin. But I soon say to myself, No. That’s the worst type of unkindness. Unkindness to myself. I’ll just continue to focus on my own behaviour and I will continue to practise what I preach. I’ll be kind and I’ll teach my children, both my pupils and my own, to be kind too. Because I know that it is the right thing to do for this funny old world we live in. Be brave and courageous and generous with your kindness. And I’ll judge my success not on how much money I have when I die, or how far I’ve got in my career, but on how many people I’ve taught to be kind and how many people would say of me, “She was a kind person.”

Dahl was right when he said that kindness is the best attribute in a person. But kindness takes courage and bravery and generosity. So I’d change his quote to say: “Kindness is my number one attribute in a human being. Because I know if someone is kind, they’ll also have had to be brave and courageous and generous. Kindness – that simple word. It covers everything to my mind. If you’re kind, that’s it.”

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