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The Importance of Raising Kind Kids

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The New York Times recently had two popular blog posts with very different thinking about kindness.

The first was a transcript of novelist George Saunders’ Syracuse University commencement speech, which included a eloquent and heartfelt endorsement of the virtues of kindness.

The other one was a post by Catherine Newman on the Motherlode about why she didn’t want her daughter to ever feel burdened by the expectations for young girls to be nice, which Newman sees as distinct from kindness.

Newman calls herself a “card-carrying feminist” and views her encouragement of Birdy’s scowling through this lens. Girls, more than boys, are taught that being likeable is paramount and that this people-pleasing should come before self-expression or even self-defense. This is true for women of all ages. Still, I am not sure that the best weapon to fight the patriarchy, or any social order, is with a scowl.

There is surely a large middle-ground between rudeness and obsequiousness, and perhaps we would all be better off if we helped our sons and daughters navigate that territory instead of empowering them to dismiss others at will. We should push them to understand why a smile is important, and how it can be a symbol of empowerment instead of disempowerment by way of incessant people-pleasing.

Newman says her daughter, at her core, is kind, and I am sure she is. But if only a few people witness this kindness, what good is it?

Much like Saunders, Jewish tradition sees kindness as a primary virtue, one to organize our lives around. The Talmud tells us that world rests upon three things, Torah, avodah and chesed which translates to loving-kindness, compassion, or grace. Medieval commenter Rashi sees chesed is seen as the highest act, because it does not require money or power, but just a full-heart and intention.

As Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow put it, “acts of chesed are the active representation of a covenant among people, a social contract.” She believes that, according to Jewish tradition, acts of kindness are the glue that binds us to one another, and are an irreplaceable source of power in the construction of communal life.

I hope my son, and maybe one day, my daughter, understand this. I want them to not just be kind, but also share their kindness. I want them to construct families, communities, and more with their kindness. I want this to be their radical act, the one that people like Saunders will remember them for.

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