There are many things we want our children to learn. It starts simply as they are newborns: how to latch on, how to sleep for longer stretches and on places other than your chest. As they grow, our hopes and expectations grow as well. We want them to walk, then run and jump and ride a bike and a scooter and play soccer and hit a baseball. We want them to sign "more," then say “more,” then “more please” then “may I please have some more?” We want them to learn how to zip up their jackets, tie a shoe, sew a button. To clean up their messes, clear their plates, put away their clothes. To write their names, to stay within the lines, to read.
But as I think about what I most want my children to learn, it is less about how to do than how to be. And what I want them to be, more than anything, is kind.
When I look back on my biggest regrets to date, many of them have to do with not being kind. Most of these incidents took place in those awful middle school years: crank calling former friends; talking about friends behind their backs; secretly reporting confidences.
The incident that has stuck with me the most happened in eighth grade. It was after school, and the halls were completely empty. It must have been close to time to lock the doors and officially kick everyone out. The weird smell of junior high school was even stronger without all the competing smells of hormonal teenagers: sweat, paper and – oddly and most strongly – Italian salad dressing.
A girl in my grade turned the corner and saw me. She was relatively new to our town and still wore her south Boston accent. She was not overly athletic or intellectual or musical or dramatic or any other thing that would have helped her find her own niche in middle school. Whatever the reason, she was singled out to be one of the unpopular kids.
Our footsteps echoing in the hall, she tentatively waved, “Hi, Alison!” she called. I looked her straight in the eyes and kept walking.
I don’t know who I was trying to impress. There was no one there to impress. I don’t know why being mean would impress someone anyway, or why I would want to be friends with someone if that sort of thing did impress them. I do know that I looked this girl in the eyes and treated her as if she were not good enough for acknowledgment.
I thought about that incident a lot that day, and for weeks and even years following it. Clearly I still think about it, as I’m writing about it now. This moment was a turning point for me. I realized after that this – this cruelty or self-importance or insecurity – was not me, and not who I wanted to be. From that day on, I went out of my way, probably in a way bordering on creepy, to be kind to this girl. And she graciously acted as though that moment in the deserted halls never happened. (I can pretend to myself that she didn’t notice, but that’s letting myself off the hook. Of course she noticed.)
Right now, my children’s moments of unkindness are less complex: they are not kind when they want something someone else has: a book, or a toy, or a lap. Occasionally, but with increasing frequency, their acts of unkindness are more experimental: “If I am not kind, how will my brother react? And if I keep acting this way, will he cry more, or will he stop?” This can be uncomfortable for me, because my kids love each other and I want them to be good to each other. But I know it is also a normal part of growing up: it is testing limits, it is gauging reactions, it is coming to terms with your own power. It is also a good opportunity to begin talking about the importance of kindness, and of being treated the way you would want to be treated.
If I’m being honest, I worry about my kids – both that they will be the target of unkindness and that they will be the perpetrators of it. I can’t shield either. Every child has moments of unkindness as they navigate through childhood. It is part of growing up, I think, to make others feel different and in so doing to make yourself feel like you belong. But bullying is so much harsher now than when I was in eighth grade. I’m sure my near-empty hallway epiphany seems tame in today’s world, where everything is documented and posted on the internet.
I do my best to teach my children about kindness. I try to model it, and apologize when I fall short. I praise their acts of generosity and love. I talk to them about hurt feelings. When they are old enough, I will tell them this story, and how much I regret it. But learning kindness is ultimately something you have to do on your own. You have to choose it. I will give my children the tools to make that choice, I will show them how to use them. And I will hold my breath.