The Importance of Teaching Children Kindness at a Very Young Age

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After Newtown, a mother contemplates what she can do to promote peace rather than violence.

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Lucas Jackson/Reuters

I volunteered in my daughter Penny's first grade classroom on Monday. The simple act of pushing the buzzer and entering the brightly lit hallway brought tears to my eyes. This is what a school should be, I thought, a safe, happy, colorful place, where it doesn't cross kids' minds to be afraid. We live 20 miles away from Newtown, and Penny's class consists of 23 six-and seven-year olds. That aching sadness that began in the main hallway persisted in the midst of the rambunctious cheer of her classroom. The students worked to create a wreath out of puzzle pieces in anticipation of the upcoming holiday. And as I supervised gluing and coloring, I hated the thought of the kids who weren't able to bring home wreaths to their parents this year.

I had wondered over the weekend if I should talk to Penny about the shooting at Sandy Hook. I didn't want her to hear the news from her classmates, especially if it might include brutal and frightening details. We kept the television off, which is not unusual for our family, and I turned off the radio whenever the reports headed toward details of the murders. I knew my younger children—ages two and four—probably wouldn't hear about it from friends, but I still thought I should prepare Penny, even if just a little bit. I finally told her, "Something sad happened to some children at a school nearby."

Her face got serious as she asked, "Who?"

I said, "No one you know."

That was enough for her. Her world consists of people she knows, and if they are safe and happy, then so is she. I told her that if she heard more at school she should talk to a grownup. But when I asked her teachers, they said Friday's events hadn't come up in class that day. It was noon by then, and they were confident that they would have heard about it already if it was going to become a topic of conversation. "These parents did a good job protecting their children," Penny's teacher said.

It came as a relief that I had no need to talk with my daughter any further about children her age being shot in their classrooms, but I still wondered how I might respond to this tragedy. I thought through various options: signing petitions about gun control, advocating for greater access to mental health support, enforcing safety measures on school campuses, boycotting violent movies and video games. I support all of these efforts, but they don't involve my children in any direct way. Furthermore, all of these are reactive measures, trying to protect against something awful rather than trying to promote something good.

And so I wondered, what good could we possibly promote in the wake of Newtown?

In church last Sunday, our pastor began the service by suggesting that the simple act of coming together to pray and sing and anticipate Christmas was itself a statement of defiance, a refusal to give in to the power of violence and death. He said that even in our anguished questions, we had an opportunity to proclaim our hope that goodness matters and that one day goodness will triumph.

Similarly, I want goodness to triumph in my children's lives, and one thing I can do in a proactive way is to teach my children kindness. By kindness I don't mean tolerance. I don't mean pity. I don't mean "not being mean." Rather, I want to teach my kids how to include, befriend, and welcome the kids who seem different from them.

I don't know whether Adam Lanza would have led a different life if someone had befriended him. Perhaps there were peers who tried. And I don't mean in any way to suggest that his actions should be blamed upon other people who didn't do enough to reach out.

And yet, at the same time that I was struck by the innocence of Penny and her peers when I visited her classroom on Monday, I was also struck by the ways in which they are beginning to categorize one another. One little boy looked at me as he labored to write his name and said, "I'm smarter than so and so..." Another one pointed to crayons on the floor and said, "She always makes a mess..." Two little girls whispered and giggled to each other, and a third girl across the table said, "Don't laugh at me!" The statements were benign, but they also demonstrated the desire to create categories of "smart" versus "stupid," of "cool" versus "weird," of those with friends versus those on the outside.

I want to teach my children to be on the lookout for the kid who has no one to sit with in the lunchroom, the kid who seems shy or awkward or strange, the kid who thinks more slowly or talks more quickly or does whatever it is to provoke teasing or apathy rather than friendship. And then I want to teach my children to risk their own social standing by reaching out to the one who is all alone. I want to teach them to look for the good, the beautiful, the interesting, the true, in everyone they encounter. I want to teach them to forge unnatural friendships, and teach them to expect to be delighted by the people they learn to love. I want to teach them to be kind. And though the effects of kindness cannot be measured, I trust that when we cross social divides to befriend one another, the power of hatred is overcome with the power of love.

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