Can kindness be taught?
The best things my son brought home from school during second grade were little pink slips of paper filled out by his classmates.
The notes were often scrawled in crooked handwriting. Each one mentioned a simple thing my son had done: He helped stack the chairs after school. He lent someone his markers. He gave a friend a pencil.
His teacher at the time, Emily Bernstein, encouraged the students to jot down when they noticed a peer was “caught showing character.” She handed out the notes and sometimes assigned a “secret friend” to make sure everyone was caught committing kindness at least occasionally.
The notes I often found in the bottom of his backpack were small but powerful.
His friends were affirming what I was trying to teach at home.
When it comes to teaching kindness, we often start too late and stop too young. We think once our children have mastered social graces that they no longer need direct instruction on something so basic.
We are wrong.
It can take years of practice, reinforcement and witnessing small and large gestures of grace to create considerate adults. Even then, we need reminders.
This year, I turned 40. As part of marking that milestone, I resolved at the start of the year to commit 40 random acts of kindness before my birthday. Initially, it sounded easy enough; I prefer to think of myself as a nice person. I started keeping a list as I paid tolls for those behind me, bought drive-through meals and coffee for strangers, gave away free movie tickets to those in line.
But I soon realized that I didn’t want my children to see my challenge as a gimmick, nor did I want them to think the only way to be kind was to give people stuff.
So I started writing thank-you notes for things I would normally just appreciate silently, like a helpful concierge or a cheerful waitress. I said yes to volunteer events that I felt too tired or busy to do at the moment I was asked. I extended invitations I would normally have talked myself out of. And I didn’t say a word or give a sideways glance to the woman who stole the parking spot I had waited several minutes for.
The project forced me to become more intentional about my interactions with others, regardless of how brief. And it embarrassed me to realize how often I missed these opportunities when I wasn’t keeping kindness top-of-mind. So many of my efforts for others focus on the usual suspects of family members and friends.
Making that circle bigger turned out to be the best gift I’ve ever given myself.
Unbeknownst to me, around the same time I started my project, Kimberly Downey, a mom of twins and owner of a dance school in Orange County, California, made the same resolution. She wanted to repay the world: One of her twins had undergone open-heart surgery last year, and she had been overwhelmed by the way friends and family took care of her family.
On Jan. 4, her 39th birthday, she told her twin girls, now 4, that they were going to spend the entire day spreading acts of kindness throughout their community. From 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., they took dog and cat treats to an animal shelter, handed out sand toys at the beach, mailed care packages to deployed Marines, dropped off crayons and coloring books to a children’s hospital and delivered gift baskets to their local fire station.
After a few months of consistently involving her children in small acts of kindness, Downey observed a change in them. They noticed when a child was all alone on a playground; they defaulted to being the ones who would reach out in those situations. I noticed a similar effect on my children near the end of my challenge. They would suggest ideas to me as we went through our normal, hectic routines.
What if everyone who has ever benefited from another person’s kindness made it an urgent priority to pass it along?
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.