In this age of selfies, Insta updates, over sharing and an incredible fascination with image, fame and being seen, I have been wondering have we lost something in this ‘me’ world?
With rampant consumerism, the high-stakes education testing system, competitive parenting and the rushing, ‘busyness’ of living today, I really feel we have lost something profoundly important. Have you noticed anything missing or is it just me?
I watched a random video online the other day from CBS News. It showed a group of young teenagers at a skate park. A younger child who had autism, Gavin, had arrived at the park to play with his new skateboard on his 5th birthday. Totally unprompted, the older kids helped this little guy to have a really special time. Since befriending Gavin, apparently the teens have continued to meet up and play with him.
Watching this story, I teared up and my heart seemed to expand in my chest.
It reminded me of how I had reacted when I saw the image of the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugging a Muslim woman with such presence and tenderness after the New Zealand tragedy in which 50 people were killed while they worshipped.
Both these moments in time, which gave me such an emotional surge, were based on acts of compassion.
Also, they were very small gestures but they made the news — so extraordinary were they considered to be.
I refuse to believe the world is sliding into moral decay where the pursuit of individual success and happiness has to come at the cost of someone else’s. I refuse to believe that the perpetrators of violence, cruelty and emotional pain are all around us. With our 24/7 media cycle that swamps our phones, TVs and devices every second of every day bringing us the worst possible news about humanity, we could believe that all is lost. It’s not.
It’s not them and us… it’s just us
Canadian psychologist and researcher Dr Michael Ungar has written a lot about the notion of a decreasing sense of belonging or diminished social capital where individuals are only concerned about how things impact ‘them’ rather than ‘us’.
I had an inkling that this feeling I’ve been having that we are missing something had something to do with human connectedness but I also knew it was more than that. But what?
I love it when I experience coincidences or moments of synchronicity especially when I am pondering big questions like, “What are we missing today in our busy world?”
So before one of my many flights recently, I picked up the April edition of the Australian Women’s Weekly — a magazine I remember my mum getting regularly when I grew up on the farm — and there was the answer.
In the magazine was the story of Kath Koschel and how she came to create the not-for- profit ‘disruptor’, the Kindness Factory.
Kath has endured many serious adverse experiences in her life from a broken back, the unexpected death by suicide of her fiancé, PTSD, a serious cycling accident that saw her hit by a four-wheel-drive being driven by a drunk driver, and then another death by suicide of someone very close to her.
Being grateful and kind builds resilience
Kath worked out that despite all the adversity, she had so many people who had helped along the way that she needed to be grateful for. So she began calling them up to say thanks and she found she began to feel better about herself.
In the article, she said that she’d found gratitude, which was something people took for granted. For her, it has held great beauty and power and has been the major factor in her ability to develop resilience.
Kath realised that performing small acts of kindness to others — whether it was simply smiling at someone in the street or shouting a homeless person a meal — was restorative. So she set up the Kindness Factory.
In time, her initiative has evolved into working with schools to deliver programs to build resilience and happiness, and working with corporations to help them incorporate kindness projects and to change corporate culture.
She’s also developed a kindness log, which is a safe online space in which people can share random acts of kindness – they hope to get to a million acts logged (and I’d like to help so see the bottom of my blog for more on that)!
Brené Brown teaches a similar message about turning to gratitude when life is challenging.
That’s when my light bulb moment happened!
We are missing out on seeing gestures of kindness that come from thoughtfulness and concern about others — not just ourselves — as often as we used to. Of course they’re happening but the balance in our news feeds is more skewed towards negativity, nastiness and hostility.
And I wonder if we’re so busy now that we have less time to focus on kindness than we used to.
As a kid growing up in the bush in a small community I witnessed genuine caring concern for others often. I can remember helping to bake biscuits and date cakes that would be dropped off to a family who were doing it tough. People in our community shared their excess eggs, oranges, sheep poo and apricots.
Compassion and kindness have the power to touch deeply and this often ripples through the world around us; it invites others to be caring in turn. This is a universal reality that has great power.
Many people have been touched by the kindness of others after the world disasters and tragedies we have witnessed recently.
I know in my own home and classrooms where I taught adolescents for over 16 years, kindness was the most powerful pathway to connecting and guiding young people. It is great that science can now prove what wise, caring Elders have known for a very long time.
The more I thought about it, the more I realised how often I have chosen kindness towards others when I have been feeling stressed or tired. When I lived in a small village in northern New South Wales, I would often bake biscuits rather than watch TV and gift them to some of the children in my street.
Where I live now we have wonderful neighbours who collect our mail while we are travelling away from home. I usually have dropped off some baked goodies within a couple of days of returning home as a gesture of gratitude and appreciation. Their adolescent son is extremely happy when I come knocking on the door!
Be reassured there are many wonderful community projects happening at a grassroots level in our cities and our country communities – we just don’t get to hear about them! Community gardens, verge gardens, sharing cooperatives, free markets and free swap boot days.
We tend to mostly hear about the bad stuff — about the opposite of kindness and thoughtfulness, and I think that’s the reason I shed tears of joy when I witnessed those images of kindness. It was a bit like getting a drink of water after walking in from the desert.
It is harder to find these precious moments of goodness — no wonder I cried tears of joy and relief. We must reclaim this amazingly important human behaviour before it diminishes any further.
What is kindness?
Kindness is the capacity of an individual to act from a place of genuine concern for oneself and others, and includes the qualities of empathy, compassion, generosity and consideration with the intention of making a positive difference in our world.
Being kind is a choice made from the belief that every generous action influences others, and it honours our deepest, invisible motivation to have value and worthiness in our lives.
In many ways our world has become a nastier and crueller place, especially in the virtual world, in incredibly violent films and pornography, which has become more prolific than I’m sure anyone ever imagined.
The internet has given trolls the opportunity to lash out at other people in nasty and vitriolic ways while remaining anonymous. Unfortunately these badly behaving individuals are creating a skewed vision of society.
Please remember always, whatever we see online — the world is still full of good people who live caring and responsible lives in their communities.
The effects of being treated fairly and with kindness have been shown in studies in neuroscience to make a significant difference to the way the brain integrates, and subsequently, to how individuals feel and behave.
When we are treated with kindness, it allows our nervous system to relax and the pleasant sensations from endorphins, often serotonin and sometimes oxytocin, to flood our body. It makes us feel safe, valued and connected.
Stress and distress have significant effects on how children and adults interact with the world. So with more kindness we may be able to lower the stress in our homes, classrooms and communities.
When we are kind, we don’t take advantage of our power, or of other people’s vulnerabilities. Instead, we seek to comfort, encourage and strengthen those around us.
The strong sense of belonging that comes with being treated with kindness is tangible and powerful. It removes the distance between individuals from ‘them’ or ‘us’ to ‘we’.
Treating others as we would like to be treated is an ancient way of building character and human understanding.
John Medina in his book Brain Rules for Baby (2014) explains the astonishing skill called ‘deferred imitation’, which develops rapidly and which research shows exists in a 13-month-old child who can remember an event a week after a single exposure. When we know this, we can appreciate how important it is to model kind, caring behaviour in front of our babies, toddlers and young children.
If we have never been treated with kindness or fairness, we simply will be unable to treat others the same way.
Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence (2006) wrote of the power of ‘emotional contagion’. By this, he meant that collectively we are influenced by how others feel and behave. Recent research that discovered mirror neurons, appears to validate emotional contagion.
This is why modelling is so helpful in creating kind kids. This also explains why we can feel despairing at times with the negative news and stories that tend to dominate our screen world. We are impacted by the dominant collective emotion or mood.
The modern world has somehow grown a culture of individualism, insensitivity, selfishness and even cruelty. As social beings, a primary need of all humans is human intimacy and connection and I believe so many of the social ills of our world — increasing violence, bullying, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness and suicide — come from a place of disturbing alienation and separateness.
If we can build a strong culture of caring, based on kindness and fairness, our children may find the world a different place when they become adults. This culture needs to start in our homes and then flow into our schools so that every child can be influenced and shaped by it.
To be kind requires empathy: we must consciously attune ourselves to the life experience of another being to know what will feel good for them. This means we reach across the imaginary divide that appears to be between people of different ages, cultures and gender.
The critical time for young children to develop the ability to be empathetic, gentle and kind is under four years of age.
If a very young child is given the opportunity to interact with a small kitten or puppy with adult guidance, he or she can learn what being gentle and caring means. I have seen many toddlers who have nearly squeezed the life out of a kitten before they learned what gentle really meant!
Without this opportunity, children may be unable to care that they are being rough or hurting others. This inability to feel empathy is a significant behavioural deficiency and could mean that an individual has difficulty in relationships, especially when it comes to intimacy.
A lack of empathy is also common in teenagers and adults who were ignored as children and who experienced very little play.
While our teens are often maligned as being selfish or apathetic I do want to acknowledge that they often do amazing acts of kindness (as we saw with the above skate park example), especially when inspired by shining, positive humans as role models. The Walk the Talk program happening in Sydney is an excellent example of how young people can step forward and do great things to help others – in this case teens are working on ways to help women who are living in women’s refuges.
Despite the essential nature of social and emotional learning, many of today’s adults and systems ignore or invalidate these learnings in favour of a focus on cognitive and physical development. The screen world is also working against building interpersonal connectedness and the building of emotional and social awareness.
Seriously, consider getting a guinea pig or two when your children are around three years of age so that you can carefully teach them how to be caring and gentle, which is a precursor to empathy.
How do we raise caring, kind kids?
- Model unconditional loving care and kindness.
- Prioritise sharing true stories of kindness.
- Be truthful and honest as often as possible.
- Ensure your children play frequently and often with other children.
- Volunteer locally in your community.
- Create a safe place for your kids and teens to share all their emotions.
- Be a positive dreamer of hope about making the world a better place.
- Hold doors open, give up your seat and offer to help others in supermarkets.
- Be joyful and laugh often.
- Model personal health and wellbeing.
- Be connected to and nurture your own spirit.
- Have relationships that you value and nurture.
- Express gratitude openly to your kids and others.
- Have inspirational posters and images around the house especially the toilet.
- Practise calmness as it helps us find deeper meaning about ourselves and life.
- Choose to do some random acts of kindness. Check out Dr Justin Coulson’s FB story of his family doing a kindness task together.
“The best way to inspire your children to develop into the kind of adults you dream of them becoming is to become the kind of adult you want them to be.“
— Robin Sharma, The Greatness Guide (2006).
Please chat to your kids, or the students you teach and let’s make the world a better, more caring place.
Let’s lift the perception of darkness and awfulness – and find the good in our wonderful world. Let’s be kinder and more thoughtful – we all need it!