“They said they wouldn’t be mean to me anymore,” he said. “They said they’d try to be nicer, unless I did something they didn’t like.”
“You don’t put stipulations on friendship,” I told my oldest son.
“I know,” he said. “They’re being nicer now.”
There was a time such an exchange would have broken my heart. We’ve lived through those times. Lots of them. My heart has broken more than I care to count. Now it only bends as I bite my tongue in frustration, willing the jerks of the playground to get theirs on the nose and nodding carefully at the boy in front of me.
“Perhaps you should play with other kids,” is all I can muster, and I hope he reads more into it.
My son is goofy, even by middle-school standards. He is stubborn and oblivious, remarkably sensitive and full of innocence. He gets lost in his own thoughts and has been known to bury the lede beneath a precision of pauses and overly calculated backstory. He is warm and thoughtful, incredibly so, and he is so very, very kind.
“They’re my friends,” he said, and I wish I believed it half as much as he did.
Teaching kindness on the Internet
Today, on the way to school, my youngest started talking about the benefits of Kindness Week, something I — a guy who spends his days preaching kindness on the Internet — was totally unaware of (note to self, catch up on school emails).
“What happens during Kindness Week?” I asked.
“We were asked to pick up trash. Whisper ‘thank you’ to the librarian. Smile at 25 people. That kind of thing,” he said.
“Why didn’t you tell me about it?” I asked. “That’s a wonderful idea.”
“I do that stuff already” he replied. “And we talk about kindness all the time. You know how important it is.”
And, with a hug on the blacktop, the student became the master.
Good boy saves good dogs
“Hurry up,” I told him. “They’re expecting us.”
My oldest and I were running out the door to visit the local animal shelter, and it took him a moment to navigate the foyer, packed as it was with box upon box of blankets and food he had collected for a different animal shelter in a different town, all of it building by the day and waiting right in the way.
“Comb your hair,” I said. “They want to take your picture.”
“It’s fine,” he said.
We were going to the animal shelter, the first one, to meet with some of the office staff and county officers that worked there, grateful as they were for the donation he had made — 5,000 meals to the animals in their care — the prize he had won in a national contest highlighting children and the work they do to protect our furry friends.
There was supposed to be media there, and they didn’t show. He never even mentioned it.
No presents for him
“I don’t want presents for my birthday,” said the soon-to-be 10-year-old. “Well, I want presents from you and Mommy, but if my friends want to spend money on something they should donate it to the Humane Society, or some other animal charity.”
We were sitting in a restaurant, a booth by the window, and through it we could watch the world go by, all of it oblivious to the homeless man in the middle.
“I’m full,” he said, his eyes peering through the pane. “Can we give the other half of my sandwich to that man?”
“You can,” I said. “It’s your sandwich.”
And he did.
Other people not so kind
“You’re a terrible father,” read one comment. “Your kids are going to hate you.”
There were more:
You’re raising p#$$!es, not men.
You are what is wrong with America.
[Expletive] you, you [expletive] [expletive].
Kids need a firm hand, not hugs.
And so forth and so on, with varying degrees of crimes against grammar.
The comments were on a post about my life and my family. They took exception to, well, pretty much everything, and they were par for the course. I had seen them before and I will see them again.
That’s the secret of good, the downside to better, in that the more positivity you try to put into the world, the louder the detractors. The harder you struggle with your own shortcomings, the harder others make sure you never forget them. It isn’t that I’m trying to teach my children empathy and kindness, rather, I’m trying to make sure they don’t lose the lot they have. It isn’t easy, mainly because I am nowhere close to the man I hope to be. But I am trying. And they are watching. They hold me accountable by just being.
From comment sections to playgrounds, you don’t need to look far for the cynical rants of the bored and uninspired; however, vehement they may be, they are the last gasp of the ignorant, borne from fear with their shouts just above the din.
The fact is: The future can be fantastic, and our kids are better than us. Already. Let’s keep it that way.
Teaching Kindness, Teaching Kindness photo: Whit Honea