Are children born with the kindness gene? How old are they when that gene surfaces? For some it seems to take much longer than with others.
Think of the times a little friend has come to play, and your mommy radar detects a pending scuffle. Your cherub is about to crank up with a whack on the back, toss a block or a grab toy. Before you realize it, you've said the classic words, "Now, be kind."
So how exactly does your child translate those words? Some might hear it as "Don't you dare be mean!" The time has come to rev up the kind-o-meter and jumpstart that sleeping kindness gene. Activating the gene in some kids is like trying to persuade them to eat rutabaga; but, take heart, you can do it.
Brothers Justus, 5 months, and Matthias, 4 1/2, of Martins Ferry.
Recently, I enjoyed a short Internet video, "Charlie Bit My Finger." After watching, I understood why it went "viral." Charlie, a jolly baby with a couple of front teeth, sat in the big chair on his older brother's lap. Brother, who was probably 2 1/2, stuck his finger in Charlie's mouth. Of course, Charlie did what teething babies do, he chomped down. Many "big" brothers after yelling "Ow!" would have whacked Charlie or dumped Charlie in a heap on the floor. Charlie heard the wail and released the bite. Brother quickly recovered, and said words which surprised me. He didn't act ugly, haul off and punch or bite Charlie or say that Charlie was mean. He said with a smile, "Charlie bit my finger, and it really hurt."
Ah yes, kindness gene.
This fall, my granddaughter entered sixth grade, which meant a new school, new friends and switching classes. Each morning during my recent visit, I watched her with her new book bag and a spiffy drawstring bag filled with gym clothes adorned with the middle school logo walk to the bus stop. She has PE class, middle school-style, which means changing clothes.
"Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." - Plato, and the author's grandfather
I thought back on my ninth grade gym class in the day when Triadelphia was the "Out the Pike" high school. We wore one-piece, electric blue gym suits with bloomer legs. Changing clothes was tolerable but having to take showers was not. The PE teacher told us stories of being in "the war," which in our minds could have been the Spanish American War. At shower time, she said we should "thank our lucky stars" that we have showers because she had to bathe out of her helmet for weeks at a time. We cringed, then marched to the locker room and showers.
As girls will do, some of the movers and shakers in our class mumbled unkind remarks behind their hands about one girl who constantly smelled peculiar and had excessively dry, dull hair. While my friends and I waited in line, I noticed the girl did not have soap. Without saying anything, one day I handed her my lavender scented soap when I finished. Later in English class she whispered a thank you and returned the soap. She declined my offer to keep the soap. We worked it out. She stood behind me in the shower line, and I slipped her my soap as I left. I looked into the face of genuine hard times when she told me they were so poor that she bathed and also washed her hair with homemade laundry soap.
Decades later, after hurricane Isabel, we were without electricity for nearly three weeks. The shower stall kindness, just like a boomerang, came back to me. Without electricity, we had no hot water. My neighbor did have a natural gas hot water heater. She met me in the street one day as we were hauling downed tree debris to the edges of our yards. She asked if I would like to come to her house for a hot shower. Each afternoon, I marched up the road with soap and towel, just like the old gym class days, and took a hot shower. On my final shower, I secretly left a brand new bar of scented soap.
I savor the quote from the prolific writer, Anonymous: "Kindness, like a boomerang, always returns." So how do we help our kids understand that kindness is more than simply "not being mean"? Perhaps, kindness could be defined as doing something nice when you don't have to.
Sometimes we can awaken the kindness gene by modeling that behavior. Reading together is an opportunity to broach the subject when something "talk-worthy" arises in the story. You'll recognize the moment. A sentence or a phrase will pop out.
Children's writer James Vollbracht works with the kindness theme in three books. "Her Father's Garden" (Wisdom Publications, 1996) is a lyrical story of a young girl in a mythical land who raises a thriving garden in a once-barren plot of ground. Folks in the village were hopeless and sad.
Although she was mocked at first, she tended her garden with loving kindness. As her garden grows, hope grows again in the village.
Vollbracht's book "Small Acts of Kindness" (Paulist Press, 1995) is centered on the effects of a child's spontaneous hug. In another book, "The Way of the Circle" (Impact Publication, 1993), you will see the boomerang theory at work. Vollbracht uses friendship between a young boy and a wise old man to explore the idea that every kind act you do will be returned to you. These are older books but are usually in libraries and sometimes at booksellers.
When I was little and hanging out with my grandfather listening to gypsy music, working beside him in the garden or just sitting on the porch looking out over the fields of Frog Hollow Farm, he would offer words of wisdom like "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Through the years I have discovered levels of meaning in those words. Not long ago I came across the quote again My grandfather was indeed a wise and learned man. He had quoted Plato!
In this season of blessings and thanks, adopt the words of Plato and my grandfather: "Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
Heidi Maness Hartwiger, a Wheeling native, is a writer, teacher and storyteller. She is the author of two books, "All Join Hands: The Forgotten Art of Playing With Children" and "A Gift of Herbs." She is a mother of four and a grandmother of five.