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Week 19: "Using Your Kindness"

Daniel Barash

And there it is; a spoonful of soggy cereal from Aviva’s bowl to mine. “Thank you, Aviva,” I manage to say, “How thoughtful of you!” A pause, and then she says, “I’m using my kindness. Are you going to use yours? Give Papa some cereal…”

Honestly, I was a little stunned. “Using your kindness?” From the mouth of a three-year-old? Where do kids learn this stuff?! She certainly hadn’t heard that phrase in our house. 

After a little questioning, I soon discovered the answer: preschool! Yes, in addition to picking up the glee of blurting out her new favorite word, “POO-POO,” at least 50 times per day, at the most inappropriate times and places (the dinner table, the grocery store check-out line, as a salutation to loving relatives who come to visit, you get the picture), now this: “Using Your Kindness.”

I love that phrase, for a couple of reasons. First, it assumes that everyone has kindness within them, it’s a quality that we all share. Second, the only way to strengthen it, like you would a muscle, is to actively use it. 

At drop-off that morning, I learned the source of this new phrase: Melissa! One of the all-star teachers who cares for my daughter every week-day. All of her teachers share different aspects of themselves with Aviva and her mates: Molly shares her love of music and rhythm; Claire shares her passion for art-making; Dana shares her connection to the soil and growing things with our own two hands; and Melissa shares her commitment to…mindfulnes.

How exactly does she do this with such young ones? There are weekly walks (with two children at a time) to Aquatic Park, where they observe what’s going on in the natural world. There are nature walks around the neighborhood, where they pay attention to the beauty that lies in plain sight on the streets around us. There is group poetry-making, in which thoughts and images are translated into an economy of words. There are “mini-meditations,” where the children try to “make silence” for a few moments, connecting with their inner breadth.  And now this: “Using Your Kindness,” which focuses on looking outward, sharing of oneself with those with whom we regularly interact. Common to all of these is of course the present moment; how do I connect, right now, to the world around me, to myself, and to others?

I’m actually reminded of an old Jewish adage by Hillel, which, though in some ways ubiquitous, I now appreciate with new insight:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, then when?

How do we teach our children to be both advocates for themselves as well as carers and sharers. And when do we start teaching this?

I asked Melissa about this, and she said that she started “using your kindness” about four years ago, when she wanted some children who were not getting along to have some tools, some go-to strategies. If kids were not making the “healthiest of choices,” she would ask them if they were “using your kindness.” Instead of a scolding, this invited the kids to step back, think about it for a moment, and perhaps share how they were or were not being kind. It was such an effective approach that she’s introduced it to subsequent classes, and she’s been thrilled that many of the kids in Aviva’s cohort have co-opted the phrase, using it among themselves for all types of situations; when playing games, when initiatiating sharing moments, and when noticing that someone is feeling a little low.

It was in this “sharing our kindness” spirit that we decided to “Challah-it-Forward” to Aviva’s class on Friday afternoon, right before Shabbat. For the last snack of the day, bread was broken among friends, “Can I please have some more?’s” were echoed again and again, and smiles were shared as the sky began to darken. 

Thank you Molly, Claire, Dana, and Melissa, for your kindnesses, and here’s to all the wonderful community members who help raise our children each and every day.