Speaking Up for Kindness

It was the morning rush and, as usual, we were racing the clock. The children were slow to put on their shoes, I left my coffee on the steps, and we got stuck behind a garbage truck. When the car in front of us stopped in the middle of the street, I honked my horn and swerved around the double-parked car, muttering unsavory remarks under my breath.

My first-grader piped up from the backseat. “Mama,” he said. “That wasn’t very kind of you.”

I looked in the rearview mirror and, as his big brown eyes met mine, felt a wave of shame. He was absolutely right; I had been unkind. My mind flooded with excuses, but before I could piece words together, his small voice interrupted my thoughts. “Light’s green!” he announced. 

I returned my eyes to the road. My children chattered cheerfully the rest of the way, but I remained silent, still struggling to formulate a response to explain my unkind behavior. We pulled up to school with seconds to spare and my children scrambled out of the car. As they sprinted to the door, I called out my routine farewell: “Bye. I love you! Be helpful. Be kind.”

The car door closed with a slam, snapping me to attention.  My words hung in the air and echoed in my thoughts for the rest of the day. I tell my kids it’s important to be kind nearly every day. But when I myself was unkind, I was at a loss for words.  Why is it so easy to tell them to be kind, but so hard to speak when I myself am not? 

Like most parents, I aspire to model kindness for my children. Yet, this wasn’t the first time my children had seen me act unkindly and I am certain it won’t be the last. There are inevitably times when we don’t live up to our own expectations. In fact, most kids see adults acting in unkind ways, as the 2017 Highlights State of the Kid™ report demonstrates. In these moments, we need to be gentle with ourselves, remember that we are human, and reset our intention to be kind.

But we can’t stop there. It is these moments, perhaps, that are the most critical to talk about with our children. Like my son, children are keen observers and they notice when our words and actions don’t align. Instead of staying quiet, I could have been honest with him. “You’re right,” I could have said. “That wasn’t kind. I was so frustrated that I lost my temper.” I could have said I’ll try to do better next time. These moments offer an opportunity to reaffirm our values deliberately and intentionally. 

These days, there is no shortage of people acting in unkind ways. Kids see adults treat each other with disrespect in cars, on sports fields, and in the media. It’s not enough to remind our children to be kind and then let these moments go by unnoticed. We need to call out unkind behavior when we see it. We need to show our children examples of standing up for what is right, even when it’s hard.

That way, someday I will meet my son's eyes without flinching, and know I did my very best to show him that I strive for kindness always, that I admit I’m unkind sometimes, that I want him, like me, to be his best kind self as much as possible—and that we’ll always be able to talk about it.

More posts by Luba Falk Feigenberg, Ed.D.