Kindness is a curious concept. I think most of us would agree, the world would do better with more kindness – kindness to ourselves, to each other and to our planet. We know it to be a good act; we include it in our school and life values; we talk about cultures of kindness and the benefits of experiencing it.
Yet, why then, in our most sophisticated societies, do have such a drastic increase in mental illness, concerning decrease in the age of diagnosed depression and anxiety, and times when we must all consider our role in the constant looming threat of climate change?
Kindness, it appears, is not doing so well.
In his latest book, The Kindness Revolution, Australian social psychologist, Hugh Mackay writes:
“Surely it’s time to bring [kindness] right home, to our own front door, our own street, and our own neighbourhood; to our own family, our own workplace, our own school, our own networks of every kind. It’s time to act. As the Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore put it “You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” If we dare to dream of a more loving [kinder] country…there is only one way to start turning the dream into reality – each of us must live as if this is already that country.”
The neuroscience and social science research is clear: kindness changes the brain by the experience of kindness. Children and adolescents do not learn kindness by only thinking or reading or talking about it. Kindness is best learned by feeling it. The positive power of kindness is that it is felt both in the giving and receiving of it.
Sometimes our messaging is confusing – we need to be kind, but also tough. We know that we need to learn to be agile, flexible, adaptable because life events, out of our control, can get in the way and upset our plans. Lessons in loving kindness are sometimes put on pause, and we need to action our survival instincts and do whatever we can to literally stay alive.
“Never Waste a Good Crisis” is an expression adopted by many leaders as their people search for a new way of being in the wake of a vastly disruptive experience; they believe that the crisis becomes a catalyst for finding new and creative ways of building an improved and hopefully more meaningful way forward. Sometimes, during a ‘good crisis’ the chance to connect kindly with others finds its place; sometimes not.
Some parents, educators, and leaders don’t wait for a crisis, but rather approach life through the lens of “tough love” – their way of growing a resilient and robust future generation. They believe that the way to build a strong and hardier human involves dishing out pain, sacrifice and discomfort. There may be merit in this, in some circumstances – like the training of Navy SEALS, fire-fighters, or high performing athletes, where their mantras ring out – ‘you have to be cruel to be kind!’
However, not all children and adults thrive and flourish during tough and difficult times. In fact, many don’t cope well at all; they struggle, they buckle and they fail. Some act out, behave badly, or turn inwards and seek solace in being alone. It certainly is complex.
In the early years, when children’s brains are developing faster than at any other time in their lives, we do our best to instil in our children that humans grow stronger, braver, more able to face difficulties when they feel they are not alone. We help them make sense of the world by offering the experiences of belonging to a caring and supportive group, a loving family, a considerate community, a wholesome society. As educators we talk about ‘future-proofing’ our children – making sure they have all the right skills in their toolboxes to go safely and confidently into their lives outside of school. We arm our children with messages of the importance of being kind to others and how this makes for a better world.
On Friday, 26 of November the ELCs will be celebrating Kindness Day – all children will receive a little yellow wrist band to wear on the day – as a signal and reminder of one of our mantras: “in a world where you can be anything, choose to be kind.” We hope the experience of the day, all being involved in it together, will make a mark on their young hearts, and a memory to fall back on. We celebrate this day to affirm that our intentions are to raise the next generation of empathic, thoughtful and big-hearted humans. We take our work seriously and wade into the water, ready to swim, to act and commit to our dreams of a kinder world.
About the author
Cathy Milwidsky is the Head of Early Learning and Development at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW