Kindness Trumps All

By Melody Schalm

 

The other morning I was reminded of just how important our work teaching kindness and ‘social and emotional learning’ really is. It was a regular school morning and, despite my recent resolution to be mindful every moment of every day, I was in fact being unmindful.   We had all slept in, and there were the usual breakfasts to prepare, lunches to pack, seemingly dozens of school forms to complete, cheques to fill out and stress about, and urgent e-mails to return, all before the 8:45 a.m. school start.  

My three young kids and I found ourselves flying out the front door at breakneck speed and tumbling into the van to make it in time for the elementary school’s first bell (in violation of my other recent resolution – to walk to school whenever humanly possible).  As the kids grumbled and fought all the way to school, all that went through my head was: “Oh. Help. Me. God.  Why is Life so Hard??”

After dropping my kids off at their classrooms, I was able to start decompressing as I walked back to my van.  I stopped to talk to a fellow school mom, whose husband has recently died. She and her two young kids are grieving and struggling to come to terms with life without their husband and dad.  As we spoke I was reminded of the wounds I still carry from my own father’s death when I was a young girl.  I had swept my sadness under the carpet at the time, a seven-year-old’s way of coping when my mom had nothing left in her to give and there were no caring supports in place at school.

 As we stood chatting, a father dressed for work quickly walked by on his way to his own car.  I know the family well; their daughter, a beautiful-hearted girl with a real zest for life, has been struggling with debilitating phobias and hasn’t been around for months.  Another mom walked up and stopped for a moment, a mom who has confided in me that her child is really struggling at school due to her peers’ behaviour.  She is a child with so much to give, yet other kids had recently told her to “shut up” and said other mean things to her, and this has hurt her deeply. She doesn’t want to go to school anymore.  A fourth parent walked by, a parent who I believe suffers from depression.  The child in this family has confided on more than one occasion to one of my own kids that he/she hates his/her family and wants to go live with someone else’s family.  This is coming from a very young child.

All this child and family suffering, all witnessed within a one minute period, a one minute’s walk from my school’s doors.  Not to mention my own, both from ‘bigger’ issues from my past and, also, the regular everyday stressors of life that can make it difficult to be mindful, joyful and, sometimes, anything other than numb.  I thought:  if all this pain exists here, at this little spot near the school fence, just think how much more there must be inside those school doors, where there are over 400 humans instead of just over four.  And, further, how can all those kids be expected to learn anything at all behind those doors, when their hearts and minds are unsettled?

By bringing kindness and mindfulness teaching to our kids and families, will we bring mental illness and ‘troubles of the heart’ to a screeching halt? Of course not.  Will we prevent bad things from happening to families? Of course not.  

Will we lessen and even prevent some anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness that bring so much sorrow to our families? Well, yes, we will.  Will we grow kindness, joy and resilience in our kids, families and communities?  Yes, we definitely will.  Will we brighten the days of those who are experiencing loss, illness or any number of other difficulties that life can throw our way? Yes, by creating a culture of caring, we will do that.  

Researchers tell us that about 10% of our happiness levels derive from our environment and actual life circumstances, and 50% comes from our genes.  That leaves 40% of wiggle room to play with. It is within that 40% band of wiggle room that social and emotional learning teachers work, growing kindness, mindfulness and happiness in our kids, families, schools and communities, with a goal of creating a kinder, healthier and more joyful world.

My guess is that, of the billions of people who have come before us, nary a one was, on their death bed, contemplating the preeminent importance of reading, writing or arithmetic.  Or, for that matter, the importance of their ivy league degrees, promotion to CEO, or big house.   My guess is that millions of people before us have, at the most significant moments of their lives, instead reflected on kindnesses others had shown towards them, people who cared for them, and how well they in turn loved and cared for others. 

I vote for a “Put down your Pencils for Compassion” day at schools across the country, to remind us that, while the three ‘Rs are important, kindness and caring trump all.  A kind of mini-retreat, where kids, teachers, school personnel and parents can immerse themselves in and reflect on what matters most.   By putting first things first, we will be acknowledging that we cannot build the kind of schools, communities and world we need without also educating our hearts.      

Melody Schalm is the principal of Kind Kids.  She teaches kindness, mindfulness and related social and emotional learning to kids in school and after-school programs in greater Vancouver.  She is the parent of three elementary school-aged kids, who teach her as much about  being mindful and living life to the full as she teaches them.   

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