What does it really mean to be kind?

There has been a lot in the news and in on-line discussions lately about kindness. From Ellen DeGeneres being criticized for being kind to someone with whom she disagrees politically, to some mistaking “being kind” as equivalent to “being quiet,” kindness is definitely a hot topic of conversation.

As the founder of an organization dedicated to fostering kindness in children, this is a topic about which I have thought A LOT. When I decided that spreading kindness as far and wide as possible would be my mission, I did not embark on that mission without doing a lot of soul searching about what it really means to be kind.

When I give presentations to students, parents, or teachers, I talk about the difference between being “kind” and being “nice.”

Kindness doesn’t mean ignoring people when they do things that are unkind, wrong, ignorant, racist, or discriminatory. It doesn’t mean keeping quiet when you disagree with someone about a moral issue. But it does mean treating people with respect.

Sometimes the kindest, bravest thing we can do is stand up to someone who is being unkind. Doing so causes conflict. It will upset the person we are confronting. A nice person would see the potential for conflict and stay quiet. A nice person never wants to rock the boat. A kind person knows conflict is possible and acts anyway. A kind person knows they might create waves, and they are OK with that.

Imagine you are on the Metro. You see a group of teenagers picking on another teenager whose clothes are tattered and worn. They kick at his beat-up sneakers. They attempt to humiliate him for his appearance. What do you do?

A nice person sees this happening and keeps quiet. A nice person may notice that the victim getting off at their same stop and walks up to the victim as the doors close, with the laughter of the bullying crowd left behind. The nice person says, “I am so sorry that happened to you. They shouldn’t have done that.”

In contrast, the kind person sees this happening and gets out of their seat. The kind person goes and sits next to the victim. The kind person looks directly at the group of teenagers and says, “What you are doing is not ok. It’s called harassment. Keep it up and I’ll call the police.”

In both instances, the victim is supported. But in only one instance are those being unkind told that their behavior will not be tolerated. In only one instance are the bystanders—those who witness the bullying behavior, and the actions of the person who stepped in—made to think about their own actions and what they might do the next time they witness such behavior. In only one instance is there the possibility that the bullies will think twice before acting in that way again.

Sometimes kindness is really easy. It’s sharing an unexpected compliment with someone. It’s taking the time to remember someone’s name and then using it the next time you see them. It’s saying, “Thank you,” “I appreciate you,” “You are valued!” or “Are you OK?” It’s letting people know that they are noticed, valued, and important. It’s going a little bit (or a lot) out of your way to make someone’s day better. Kindness is caring. It is love. It is understanding.

Kindness is something we can all do every day. It is what we should value above all else as we raise our children. Kindness should be one of the highest standards by which we measure our leaders, our teachers, our politicians, our police officers…anyone!

As adults, we must set the example for younger generations. We must show them by our actions, our words, and our choices, what it means to be kind. For it is only by watching good examples that children will learn what kindness really looks like. Whether you are a parent or not, children are watching you. They are watching how you interact with others. They are watching to see what you do when you witness something unkind. They are looking to you to set the tone. They want to see who you really are.

Kindness is that little voice in your head saying, “That’s not right! You should do/say something!” when you witness unkindness, discrimination, bias, or ignorance. A kind person listens to that voice and finds the words to step in and stand up. Is that who you really are? If it is, in standing up, we must keep in mind Mahatma Ghandi, when he said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

We won’t see change and inspire people to think twice about their words and actions by using disrespectful, condescending, or hateful words to confront wrongdoing. If we are to inspire change, we must be the change. We must demonstrate how to respond to unkind behavior by ourselves being kind. Standing up with kindness can be firm. It can sometimes be loud. And it can even be hard to hear…because sometimes the truth hurts. But kindness is always respectful.

Kindness is a high moral standard. It is living a life that strives to always do what is right. It is understanding the impact our words and actions have on others (regardless of our intent). Kindness is a constant goal. It is not something to be conquered. Instead it is a life’s work. It is apologizing when we fail and it is committing to do better. Kindness is understanding that we are all human, and thus kindness is also forgiving others when they fail at being kind, but also being clear that forgiveness comes with an expectation to do better next time.

Kindness isn’t always easy. Sometimes it can be messy. Sometimes it can be scary. But it is always the right thing to do.

©Kristen Caminiti, 2019

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