Wednesday, November 30, 2011

On Kindness ....

An article appeared in the 1915 edition of Woman’s Magazine, on the subject of “Making Children Kind.”  The article drew my attention, not least because I had been discussing the issue of kindness with some friends recently, and I found it interesting that almost 100 years ago the subject of teaching children kindness was of great importance. Mind you, if we put it in context, by the middle of 1915 Britain was already experiencing a dramatic loss of life in the Spring Offensive – an early battle in the 1914-18 war, which was already casting a pall not only across Europe, but the Empire.  Perhaps that’s why kindness and the issue of how people treated each others became a topic of focus in a range of articles written at the time.  It begs a couple of questions:  Might the war not have happened if a whole host of individuals had been a bit kinder?  Do kind people brandish guns and kill others?  But here’s how that article opened:

“He who plants a virtue in the mind of a little child makes an investment which may yield a rich interest of material and moral blessings. We can make no graver mistake than to develop the intellect at the expense of the heart.”

I’ve given much thought to that opening, not just with regard to kindness and children, but kindness between adults.  Are we all naturally kind?  Or is kindness something we should recognize in ourselves when we see it, and then try enhance the trait?  Could we ask the question, “What would kindness do?” more often, or even, “How would it be, if I were more kind?”  Maybe such self-reflection might lead to a more peaceful life, and certainly research has shown that kindness is good for you.

I think we all know unkindness when we’re on the receiving end of it, or if we observe it inflicted upon another – but brave is the person who takes a stand.  Let me recount a story that comes to mind:  A couple of years ago, while shopping at a local grocery store, a friend of mine watched the following scene unfold at the deli counter.  Now, this market just happens to be right next to the local college, and is also known for great sandwiches and to-die-for fresh breads – so it’s a hit with the students.  A middle-aged woman was serving, scurrying from customer to customer with smile on her face as she endeavored to fill orders as quickly as possible during the lunchtime rush.  A girl of about 16 was waiting with her mother, and as the parent stood to one side, the girl placed her order, specifying that she wanted a fresh baked roll.  The server explained that there would be a wait of just a few minutes as a fresh batch of bread rolls was due out of the oven shortly.  Well, this wasn’t good enough for Miss Sweet Sixteen, who proceeded to rant at the poor woman, criticizing her inability to serve customers and pointing out other perceived shortcomings.  The server’s eyes filled with tears, yet the girl went on.  My friend turned to the mother and asked if the girl was her daughter, to which the woman replied (smiling), “Yes, she is.”  My friend looked at the woman, shook her head and said in a manner that could not be construed as complimentary, “You must be so very proud.”  Then she left the store, disgusted.  She said to me later, “Jackie, if I had done that, my mother would have had me by the scruff of my neck, marched me out of the store, and I would have been grounded for the rest of my life!”

The fact is that, yes, the girl who lost her temper was rude and ill-mannered, but she was also unkind, to the point of being cruel – and isn’t cruelty another level of unkindness?

 The writer of the 1915 article points to the supervised responsibility for animals and inculcating a regard for wildlife as being building blocks in developing the kindness trait in children, and points to the link between a lack of kindness and cruelty.   Here’s what the writer said – which in more modern language we’re reading in so many articles published today:  “…. psychologists showed us that there is an intimate relation between cruelty and other evil passions of mankind. Therefore, since cruelty is a most powerful element of evil, the lessening of cruelty will greatly increase the happiness of the human race.”

While the article points to teaching children to consider animals as friends, looking upon them with interest and respect, other philosophies have spoken to the interconnectedness of life; that when we injure another, we injure ourselves, and that we are increased by seeing ourselves even in those we might not naturally consider kin.

 Since reading that article, I am reminded of how important it is to be kind, and kindness is so allied to respect.  Years ago, when the majority of people lived in much closer communities, kindness was a glue that held people together, a trait that was all-important because you saw the same people almost every day – at work, the store, the school.  Now we’re more scattered, and I sometimes think our connections are scattered too.

The article ends with the writer predicting that in teaching children kindness, “Love and Justice – moral faculties which make (the child) a desirable citizen and friend of the race – are aroused, strengthened and developed by early teachings ….”  And I would have added, “And by example.”

I’ll end with that well-known bumper-sticker aphorism: 

So, what do you think?  How do we teach kindness?  How do we lead by example?  And if you like, give a shout-out to the kindest person you know, and tell us why – we could all use those stories of kindness.  And I’ll start the ball rolling here.  An act of kindness that touched me deeply was when the children of a neighbor came to my door with an old jam-jar filled with flowers on the day my old dog passed away.  The three stood there, blushing with tears as the oldest stepped forward, handed me the flowers and said, “We’re really sad about Sally.”  It was a kindness that was balm for my aching soul.

Next week:  An ordinary woman who became extraordinary.


  1. I think the mother in your story must have been as unkind as her daughter for her to smile and claim her! My mother would not have let me do that.

    The first story that popped into my mind was something that my mom did when I was young. We were driving to church and we passed this apartment building where an older man was walking along the sidewalk. We saw him fall and he didn't get up. We drove around to where he was, found a phone (there were no cell phones at this time) and called an ambulance. We never found out the man's name, but I am glad we stopped to help. I often wonder about him.

    I am glad I was brought up to say "Thank you" and to be respectful.

  2. I am a teacher and I agree that as people lose connections to one another, rudeness seems to grow. I teach in a small school where there are strong connections. When my mother died last year and I was out of school. My students made me a card with wonderful words that meant so much to me. I think someone taught them the meaning of true kindness.

  3. I agree that we need to be deliberate in our intention to teach and learn - and act! - (with) kindness. In Tucson we are fortunate to have the Ben's Bells Project ( whose mission is " inspire, educate and motivate each other to realize the impact of intentional kindness and to empower individuals to act according to that awareness, thereby changing our world." The organization does various things "to recognize ordinary (and extraordinary) acts of kindness in our community, as well support for individuals who “step up” to help others in need."

  4. Thank you Jacqueline for bringing up the subject of kindness. I see acts of kindness everywhere and consider myself blessed when I do. I think it is often the unrecognised and invisible acts of kindness that keep us working together as people for the good of the world. I am also not afraid to step in when I see deliberate unkindness or cruelty and I am sure that if others spoke up too there would be less of it. One of the things I enjoy about your books and blog is your committment to kindness in all its forms. Thank you.