Kindness. What is it?

We all say it is a good thing. We all appreciate it.

But is there a rule about kindness?

Are we obliged to be kind?

First, let’s consider what unkindness is.

Hurtful words, physical violence and stealing. I think we can all agree on those as the opposite of kindness. Social media platforms have, quite unfortunately, provided ample space for individuals of nearly all ages, and of all backgrounds, to communicate hateful and hurtful things. This is a challenge for our times. A response requires so much more than Boomers telling kids to put down their phones.

Developing and encouraging an ethos of kindness at home, in politics, at sporting events, in our community, and in our schools, is a project. We all have responsibility for this. It is a community project.

In many ways it is easier to describe what we do not want children (or ourselves) to do rather than to define acts of kindness. What do we do in schools to promote kindness? What do you do at home? In your business, or organization?

In our schools we have codes of conduct.

We celebrate the Habits of Mind. In many elementary classrooms teachers guide students to create “classroom rules” or “charters.” At home siblings are typically taught to help out their younger brothers or sisters, or “share our toys.” But is it enough?

The famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy worked for 17 years on a Calendar of Wisdom featuring wise thoughts for each day with kindness as a key sensibility. For example: “The kinder and the more thoughtful a person is, the more kindness he can find in other people.”

In Shelton’s public schools we are supporting and guiding our students both academically and in terms of social emotional learning. This is true in all of our schools. For example, our unified sports program at SHS is a state-recognized example of what kindness can look like.

Rather than list each school, I focus here on two schools — Shelton Intermediate School and Sunnyside School.

At SIS, in December, a kindness calendar was designed for the month by Principal Dina Marks. It was given to teachers to encourage multiple ways of adding kindness into learning and social activities.

Marks said, “Reflecting on my own cultural heritage, I remember Advent calendars fondly. It inspired me to create a school-based Kindness Calendar.”

Many teachers made extra efforts to send home positive notes to parents about the progress of their children. Some took time to sit with their students in the cafeteria. Many designed lessons that emphasized examples of kindness in history and literature.

Some students responded with these thoughts:

Maya Gamble, seventh grader on what the December Kindness calendar reminded her about: “Don’t be jealous of what other people have. Be grateful for what you have, because you might be luckier than others.”

Raniyah Hamilton, seventh grade, responding to learning about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Las Pasadas: “Not everyone celebrates the same thing, and it is important to respect each other’s culture.”

Alicia Curry, eighth grade member of the Teen CORP Club who is in charge of the SIS Food Bank: “In our community it is our responsibility to give back. We take care of each other. That’s why having a food bank at SIS is so important.”

At SIS there is the monthly “What You Do Matters Award” given out by each of the eight teams (groupings of students). Marks reports, “The students are responding. We end our announcements every day with the phrase, ‘what you do matters’ to remind students that kindness matters every day and that their own actions, good and bad, make a difference in their lives and in our own school culture. A simple ‘good morning’ can change the direction of someone’s day.”

Amy Yost, principal of Sunnyside School, has served in Shelton for six years. She has been a champion of the “whole child,” the research-based concept that — as every parent and grandparent knows, children are much more than their test scores and grades.

She wants school to be a “safe place” in every way for students, a place where “kids can just be kids.”

Exploring gratitude and kindness is a key aspect of school life at Sunnyside. Yost, who has led the school to be recognized by the state as a “School of Distinction” believes that positivity or, “kindness is contagious … spread it like confetti.”

Students are at times rewarded with a PAWS card from a teacher when they are noticed exhibiting empathy, responsibility and patience — among other things.

Sunnyside fourth grader Savana Ostrosky, commenting on why kindness is important to her, said, “Our school is like our home. The students are like family.”

Fiorella Watkins, another Sunnyside fourth grader, is proud to be a member, like Savana, of the Student Team of Role Models (STORM). She appreciates being part of welcoming new students.

Adam Grant, professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, writing about kids and kindness in his new book The Gift Inside the Box says: “The point is not to badger kids into kindness, or dangle carrots for caring, but to show these qualities are noticed and valued.”

Social researcher Brené Brown writes insightful books and articles (see her TED Talks!) about the human need to belong to a group and how cooperation is fundamental to human survival. She writes: “People are hard to hate close up, so move in.”

Being brave enough to be kind to people who may appear to be different from you is an important step, she notes.

In our schools we are intentional about the Habits of Mind.

We do not merely suggest that kindness is a good idea, we design opportunities for students to practice kindness.

We cannot, however, do this work without meaningful support from the community. Families, organizations (Scouts, sports leagues, theater groups, etc.), local businesses, and elected officials can play a role in modeling kindness and demonstrating for the youth that it matters. They notice.

Are we perfect in these efforts in schools? Of course not. But we are making the effort.

Will you, reader, help us?

Quoting from a well-known poem by the late Maya Angelou, Continue:

My wish for you

Is that you continue

Continue to be who and how you are

To astonish a mean world

With your acts of kindness

In closing, let’s make 2020 a year of kindness. Kindness to the Earth, kindness in our community, to the elders, to the workers, to the leaders, and to our growing young people.