Someone once said that forced kindness is a lethal destroyer of happiness. I love when my son is kind to me, to others, to himself. And I’ve watched the eyes roll and the feelings get hurt when he’s resisted a hug from a family member, or simply not wanted to share his toy with a stranger. Part of me understands these reactions because it’s so ingrained in us as adults to teach children to share, have genuine kindness and respect others. But when I think of the words teach and respect, force doesn’t seem to fit.
The idea is to allow the child the freedom to choose, and the ultimate right to say no. I know that half of the parents reading this are already thinking of reasons why it’s ridiculous.. kids with no manners are likely to become criminals.. sharing is really the only thing in life that matters.. you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. And I will agree with those concepts, to an extent. But I don’t agree that the proper avenue in which to teach children manners and respect is by, um, disrespecting them? The best way to teach a child to share is to make sure they know that they don’t have to. Reciprocating kindness and respect is only relevant when the child knows that they don’t have to, but chooses to anyway. That shows integrity and genuine kindness.
In order to teach our children genuine kindness, we must allow them to say no.
They must have the freedom to choose, and we absolutely have to suck this one up at the playground the first time they choose to say ‘No, thank you” when asked to share their truck. Because here is where the magic happens. They will see the reaction of the other parent (brace yourself for that one) and the other child (usually much less dramatic than mom). They will learn about natural consequences of their decisions, thus allowing them to calculate their next move. Once this process has been allowed to play out a few times, they’ll typically reconsider. Same with a hug from a relative. It might hurt Aunt Sue’s feelings that your child wouldn’t give her a hug. Maybe she smells. Maybe she’s old and scary looking. Or maybe, just maybe, your child didn’t feel like being hugged at that exact moment. Either way, children will watch for a reaction- it’s just what they do. They are seekers of information and we have to give them a little room to err in order to understand why it’s so important to be kind in the first place.
The other important idea here is the power to say no. Children are mostly powerless over their lives. They are told what to eat, wear, drink, when to sleep, go to school, what to watch on TV, whether they can even watch TV or not, which way to use a slide (I have major issues with this one. Who made the universal rule that slides are only for going down?), how to share, who to hug, when to talk and when to stay quiet, where to paint, where not to paint, etc. It’s exhausting when you really think about how much of their lives are dictated for them. It’s no wonder they throw tantrums, which they also get told not to do. This isn’t coming from a hippie voodoo far away galaxy – it’s just that I truly believe that teaching children that they can say no will give them more of a drive to say yes. Half the time my son says no to something, it’s simply because it was either my idea to begin with, or he’s feeling rushed or forced. Isn’t is only fair he have a say in his life?
I don’t always feel like sharing. Most of the time I do it anyways because I know it’s kind and that I get greater results in life from helping others. But that is ultimately my choice. And of course it is my job to teach my son about kindness, sharing, apologizing. But I want to teach him to do those things because they feel right, not because other parents might judge his behavior. Learning the concept of kindness is much greater than the few awkward moments it takes to grasp it.
As adults, one of our great struggles is saying no to others, even when we feel overextended or taken advantage of. I see those photos of beautiful sunsets on Facebook and Pinterest with the words “Learn to say no and not explain yourself.” The truth is, saying no is freeing. It’s a complete sentence in my house. That we know we can, we rarely do. So many adults struggle with people pleasing, shame and guilt because they feel forced to be kind and share when they don’t actually want to.
I can’t help but wonder, isn’t it a better idea to teach our children genuine kindness and self respect?