As per usual, leaving the children’s museum after a morning of fun has become a struggle and a half. Tears over the things we did not do on this trip. Tantrums over wet pants (despite reminders that playing in the water is both against the rules and, as evidenced, leads to wet pants). Full body, pregnancy aches and pains. The kids and I are tired, hungry, and over stimulated, but we make it to the parking lot via patience and promises of skittles.
A young mom approaches; her stress shows in the sweaty gleam of her makeup and the exasperated movement of swinging a toddler held for too long from one hip to the other.
“Excuse me, but do you happen to have jumper cables? My battery’s dead and we’re stuck.” I can hear in her voice that I am not the first person she has asked. Over her shoulder I see an SUV with the hood popped, a few cars down from my own. I flash from fuck, I really just need to get out of here to I would be so pissed if that were my hood up and my panic brewing.
“Yeah, I do. Let me just get my kids changed and in my car real quick.” She looks relieved and a little guilty (which she should not be) as she apologizes, noting that I obviously have my hands full. I tell her I do, but it sucks that she’s stuck and it’s really no problem to help out.
I can feel four little eyes and four little ears – all attached to the humans I created and am raising to be civilized – at attention for this exchange. As they stand in the back of our car, waiting for dry clothes and treats, I ask: “What’s the most important thing to be?” The response is quick from both: “KIND.” No further explanation is needed – they get it. Stalling our day briefly to help a stranger in need takes priority over our slight levels of discomfort.
Why do I teach my kids to be kind, above anything else?
To counteract all the ugliness around us. In this shitstorm of a society filled with hatred, horror, and division, the only way to fight back is to create a little army of humans who will do better someday.
My kids need to be decent to each other, to their parents, to our dog, and to an overwhelming number of people with whom they must coexist daily. At 2 and 4, they are vastly selfish and need every possible bit of practice in kindness.
As they grow and form relationships, they should expect the same treatment from others. Accepting that this two-way street is mandatory will be a lot easier if they’re already following protocol in their own lanes.
It doesn’t cost or hurt anything. Seriously. 90% of the time, being kind takes absolutely nothing away from us.
The lesson reminds me to dish out compassion throughout my own day. I’m grumpy, and I don’t always like people. I go from neutral to irritated in seconds flat, and have to work hard to have a filter when I do. So I guess, at 38, I still need the practice too.
The most important thing to be is kind. No day is left lacking in opportunities for this reminder.
When one of them is cooling off from hitting the other, of course, but also when one is basking in a compliment, a toy shared, or some other act of sibling sweetness.
When we bring dinner to friends, or when friends bring us dinner.
When we see a man sleeping outside and talk about how not everyone has a place to sleep, how a smile is better than a stare, how much we have come to like a particular homeless couple who we visit regularly with homemade lunches. Kind is the most important thing to be to all humans, no matter how different they may seem.
When someone holds a door open for us, remarks on a kid’s cuteness, moves their grocery cart to let us pass, or picks up one of the thousands of things that I drop and can’t reach – all small acts that could go unmentioned. Of course I model by saying thank you, but I also work to tell my kids explicitly “wasn’t that so kind?” or “that kindness made me feel good.”
As an adult, I understand the complexities and nuances of life within a society. We often have to balance our idealistic qualities for protection. At some point, a person or situation may prove that our kindness has been exhausted and abused. It is possible for more than one thing to be the most important way to be. I want my kids (and myself) to strive for happiness, health, empathy, intellect, and success. But those all follow kindness, and my 2 and 4 year olds need to get that one down first.
So when an out of the ordinary circumstance – like someone asking for help with car trouble – presents itself, we choose compassion over convenience. That afternoon, on the way home from the museum, our conversation takes great turns. We talk about how it would feel to need help from a stranger – how it may be hard to ask, and feel upsetting to not know what to do. We talk about how it felt to stay calm and patient for long enough to figure out how to use jumper cables (or sit in the car quietly during the process, at least). We talk about how it feels when a little kindness that gets us out of a jam. We talk about how car batteries and engines work. For the last ten minutes of the drive, we listen to my son lose his mind screaming and crying, because it’s long past nap time. But the example of how to be a decent human is still more important.
My myriad of hopes and dreams for my kids, of course, doesn’t end at kindness, but it starts there. And so I drill it into their little minds:
“What’s the most important thing to be?”