Seize the Moment – Random Acts of Kindness Week
Once there was a tree and she loved a little boy…
– The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein
When my son E turned seven in September, we hosted a party with all of his friends at our local park. I created a treasure hunt with clues hidden behind the many trees so that children could run, enjoy a game and find treasure at the end of their searches. In my party planning, however, I hadn’t considered younger siblings who might be along with their parents. As the older children discovered their goody bags with their names carefully printed on the front, a young girl emerged from the pack with tears welling in her eyes. “There’s no bag for me.” she uttered. While I swiftly and silently began to beat myself up mentally for not planning ahead, for not thinking this through, for not creating extra favors, I heard, “Here, you can have mine.” I stopped my panic long enough to look over and watch one of E’s dearest friends, a girl whose imagination, legs and mouth rarely stop (“How does she breathe?”) gently offer her bag to the little girl whose face lit up. She skipped around in elated happiness while I stood dumbstruck. I think I uttered, “Wow, thank you.” to our good friend. And then I returned to beating myself up. But in retrospect, I realized that if I had planned extras, there would not have been this opportunity for our friend to shine like a star. That moment has stayed with me. It was a gift.
There are opportunities all around us to be kind in the everyday mundane nature of life if we would only notice and seize the chance. Next week is Random Acts of Kindness week, February 9-15, and when the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation got in touch to ask if I would write an article, I began researching kindness and thinking about it from a parents’ perspective as I tend to do with most topics. But it was hard to pin down. Can we teach it? What are its origins? Do we have a natural inclination to kindness or must we force our motivations and behaviors to serve others? And isn’t parenting itself an act of kindness – giving of ourselves to another human being each day?
Research claims that we are more likely to help a stranger in need (called “the bystander effect”) if we see similarities in others versus differences – if we feel compassion. In fact, some schools focusing on bullying prevention teach children how to be “upstanders,” to speak up when another is being hurt emotionally or physically. They teach children specific language to use (“You are hurting him. Stop!”) and ways to seek help. Children are taught to take other’s perspectives, to appreciate differences, to find similarities and through those efforts, feel compassion which is at the very root of kindness.
But to me, kindness is less of a head activity (a cognitive topic) and more of a heart-filled one. The classic story by Shel Silverstein came to mind, The Giving Tree. Upon first reading, I considered it a tragedy – the tree had given so many parts of herself to the boy that in the end, she was merely a stump. But I hadn’t fully understood. That instead of the tree giving everything of herself and ending up with nothing, she created much more. The tree created a living legacy. She expanded far beyond her physical limitations to become a part of the boy’s life affecting exponentially more lives through her own.
Just as the tree suffered when limbs were removed, each individual is nursing her own wounds. If we run from them, we tend to judge others and create walls to protect ourselves. However, if we accept our pain, we are surprised with new insights. We are capable of feeling compassion, seeing the similarities in others and reaching out to them in our connectedness. Leaving a legacy is not limited to the retired and elderly who have time to consider such issues. It’s for us all and for today. And compassion is possible if we lift our heads up long enough to see others in need around us and seize a moment to ease it.
And so I ask myself as I ask you, “What if I didn’t have another day? What would I be doing?” Perhaps your answer might be similar to mine. I would love and appreciate those around me. I would be kind to anyone with whom I came into contact. What would you be doing?
As I’ve written before, it’s the quality of the little things in our everyday lives that contribute to significant change. In that spirit, here are my ideas for promoting kindness in your life and in your family.
Practice self-compassion. I am an expert at beating myself up about any imperfection. But I know in order to be my best self in all of my roles, I have to forgive myself. And frankly, I know I’m nicer to be around when I do. When you catch yourself doing the mental battle, gently stop and redirect yourself as you would a young child.
Read. There is no greater source of diving into other lives and perspectives as in stories. Follow other’s stories that are different from you own and find out how you are similarly connected. Frequent your local library with your children. Hold reading parties (meaning a snack, a good book and maybe a cozy blanket or pillow). Read together and uncover empathy in you and your child.
Be present. One of the most difficult and underrated tasks of our time is to be present to one another. But focusing on those we care most about can help us become more than we thought we could.
Remember the expectant parent in yourself. Recall when you were expecting a child. What were your hopes and dreams for yourself and for your child? Go over those thoughts. How are you living your hopes today?
Talk about similarities. Catch judgements. Recognizing the ways we are alike leads us to kind actions. Picking out our differences leads to separation. So discuss similarities to neighbors, teachers and local leaders with your partner and your child. When you catch yourself judging others, stop. We all do it. But catching yourself doing it is the trick. Then redirect yourself. The challenge when you stop yourself is then asking, “In what ways are we alike? What can I learn from this person? In what ways can I find compassion?”
Practice forgiveness and making reparation. When any one person in a family makes a poor choice or hurts another, practice forgiveness. Find ways to make reparation whether emotional or physical. Certainly if a sibling’s toy is broken, you can work together to fix it. But similarly, if a sibling’s feelings are hurt, how can you guide a child to help heal the emotional wound? Maybe a sincere apology and a hug are enough. Maybe doing an activity together that favors the sibling who is trying to heal.
Be open to opportunities. There are chances all around us numerous times a day to act in kindness toward others whether its our own family or the stranger at the gas station. Look for opportunities to demonstrate kindness. For example, hold a door, pick up a dropped pencil or pack a love note in your child’s lunch. Keep them small and in the moment. You may never know how your choice to smile at someone may impact the rest of his day and every other person with whom he comes into contact.
Kindness begets more kindness. So for you and me, I’m wishing for the multiplier effect. That we hold our heads up long enough to notice one another. Next week – Random Acts of Kindness week – is a helpful reminder to me that there are opportunities everywhere to be kind if I just seize them.
Here are some additional resources from the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation specifically for parents:
Silverstein, S. (1992). The Giving Tree. NY: HarperCollins Publishers.