The science of kindness

Facebook is lighting up with First Day of School pics and they are awesome. I love the bright smiles, funny looks and serious gazes at the camera. I share the jubilant feeling and huge sigh of relief with moms and dads everywhere after they drop off their kids and realize that they now have a moment to themselves after long, hot, packed summers. I also know what it feels like to drive away blinking back tears after leaving my children in the good hands of their teachers.

I’ve been talking with my almost-first-grader about school over the past week or so. After explaining how important it is to be kind to the boys and girls around him in the classroom and on the playground, he asked,

“Mom, Is Being Kind more important than Learning Science?”

I pondered this for a minute, and said something like this:

“Yes, Being Kind IS more important than Learning Science. Learning Science is very important. Yes. But Being Kind is even more so. Because, sweet pea, someday you might see or hear someone being unkind to someone else. Someone who might not feel good. And might even cry. Hurting feelings hurts. And it’s never, ever okay to be unkind to someone because you think it’s funny or because other kids are being unkind.”

Is Being Kind a part of Science? he inquired.

He’s not quite six-and-a-half years old, but he asks good questions. Driving home the other day, stuck in traffic, my thoughts turned to bullying and children and high school memories. I wasn’t ever bullied growing up nor did I play the part of a bully. But like most of us, I grew up around kids who thought nothing could touch them and others who struggled to make a friend, and plenty of kids who fell somewhere along the spectrum of happy and well-adjusted in school to terribly discontent and disconnected to those around them.

When I was in high school, we didn’t have the Internet, but we had music and books. Teenagers today obviously still have music and books, but do they have Judy Blume, Flowers in the Attic (a terrible but terribly popular series not really written for teens) Eric Clapton, En Vogue and Sir Mix A Lot? Well, maybe the Judy Blume novels were middle school, but whatever. Her books certainly played a bigger role in my sex education at age 13 than those painful sex education classes our parents signed permission slips for us to attend in ninth grade.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Looking back at first grade, I don’t remember too much. I have a clearer vision of kindergarten. I do know, however, that I liked first grade and experienced no major problems. From then on things got even better. I started playing soccer around age 7 or 8, ran around with a bunch of friends, and got good grades. Life was good. I can’t ask much more for my own kid in first and second and third grades. Around age 11, though, things get a bit more complicated.

In high school we didn’t have cell phones or proximity keys to our cars, but we had skinny jeans, mini skirts, ballet flats and flannel [note on flannel shirts… the dream is still alive where I live in Portland]. We had a good sense of humor when I was growing up. In fact, Adam Sandler joined the cast of Saturday Night Live when I was a high school senior.  Acid wash denim was unfortunate, and I should have tweezed my eyebrows before age 18, but generally I survived my adolescence lightly scathed.

On the other hand, through the ’80s and ’90s we experienced big hair styles, neon clothing and a transition into grunge and alternative rock while we completed college applications on an electric typewriter. Sometimes it seems we would have nothing in common with the teenagers of today.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

We didn’t text, but we wrote notes on lined notebook paper and folded them into tiny triangles before passing them conspiratorially beneath our desks. They didn’t include photos, but they contained our personal and in-the-moment thoughts and feelings. Our “status updates”, if you will.

I was lucky. I didn’t fall into loser category in high school, nor did I rise to the popular crowd. I may have been second tier popular, generally accepted by most, ignored by some, and unknown by probably a lot of kids. I know this because I “like” a Facebook page created by a fellow alum, and there are a few people on the page whom I genuinely don’t remember, so I can realistically assume some of them don’t remember me. My experience as an adolescent began and ended somewhat awkwardly, mostly happily, and sometimes painfully. I think many people’s teenage years may resemble my own, and they serve to get you to a place better and bigger than the one you left behind.

But some kids aren’t so fortunate. They are bullied, or possibly even worse, neglected – ignored – shunned as nothing, no one important, no one of value. It’s hard to figure out why some kids are left out, and others are invited in. It seems unlikely that the kids doing the inviting know what’s going on anymore than the kids watching from the sidelines. That said, an example. I’ve been skinny, and I’ve been fat. Got attention for both. Chatted up for curves and complimented on fitting into size 4 jeans. Ignored as the chubby girl. Ugh. College brings back memories of a time when the best I could do was not very good. High school prepared me academically for higher education, but high school did not prepare me for the social experience of being 18 and surrounded by people with whom I had little in common.

Thank GOD those days are behind me.

Which brings me to my point [kind of]. You know that amazing campaign “It Gets Better” inspired by Dan Savage to encourage LGBT youth that, well, it gets better?! It’s brilliant, and I think it should apply to all youth, not just LGBT, though I get that they are completely deserving of this inspired campaign.

[Fat is an adjective, by the way. Fat is not a quality or a virtue or a vice or a character flaw.]

Anyway. In my humble opinion, kids ages 0 – 18, or 25, or – ahem – 39 approaching the brink of 40, need to remember that Being Kind is even more important than Learning Science. Especially as our children walk through unfamiliar doors to meet new teachers and classmates, and figure out where they should hang up their backpacks and stash lunches and sit down – and with whom – and when – all the while navigating evolving family and community situations – let’s remember that is is hard work being a kid. It is often fun and other times scary and sometimes both. That was my definition of school growing up. I didn’t struggle academically, and not really socially, but I did experience disappointment and fear and stress.

As my young ones head off to school next week, I will breathe in their vulnerability and nuzzle their softness and shake off the crazies that they made me feel this summer due to their constant need… their bottomless need for snacks, Band-Aids, hugs, wipes and tiny, specific Legos that have gone missing. I know soon I’ll miss them, hearing them tumble out of bed and pitter-patter quietly to our room to wake us up early on the weekend, sneaking like hobbit-sized ninjas in wrinkled jammies with mussed up hair. I’ll celebrate with another cup of strong coffee after dropping them off at school – especially my preschooler – and I’ll try to peek into the first grade classroom to see how my boy is doing on his first day. I’ll head home or to a trail or to the grocery store next week – kid-free!! – and smile at someone on the street. I’ll get some work done, uninterrupted. I’ll try not to feel sad. I will relax in the solitude for a few hours, or at least until pick up after lunch.

Next week we will be adjusting to much earlier wake up times, and renew our commitment to Being Kind through the negotiations of what to wear and who brushes their teeth last and who wants a bagel and why don’t we have any juice.

We will experience new intention in the morning,  perhaps more temperate spirits in the evening, and the beginning of Labrador Days.

We will tumble together at the end of the day when both boys will require my immediate and undivided attention at the exact same time.

As we bid adieu to summer time and ease ourselves into the final weeks of the season of light, let’s do so with kindness, presence and love.

What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?

~ Jean Jacques Rousseau

adios summer


One thought on “The science of kindness

  1. Leslie Daley says:

    Great blog, Sarah! My only child started his senior year in high school this week, but I still remember his first days in preschool and kindergarten. You captured some of the nuances of my high school experience as well!

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