September 12, 2011 View From My Front Porch On Kindness and Compassion A friend recently commented that the teaching of compassion is something that one imparts to one’s children by example. Since I grew up with the exemplar of this idea, my father, I must agree with her. But, I puzzled, does this mean that kind parents beget kind children and so on? I have been pondering this notion ever since my children were old enough to go to school and interact with other children. From the time each was around the third grade, the attitudes and behaviors of children began to have an effect. Certain children became more aggressive and territorial, for example, polarizing the class into a “she or I” mentality. The more aggressive children began bullying behavior; the followers and less aggressive were relegated to choosing sides. Were the parents of these children not teaching them how to be nice? I wondered. From the time that my children were young, I went one step further than example in the notion of teaching kindness and compassion–I harped on it constantly. I mentioned it on the way to school and back practically every morning and every afternoon. This is how it went: “Remember to look around at lunch and make sure no one is sitting alone,” or “If you can, pick someone for your team/project/table/game find someone who is obviously left out by others,” and then “So and So is being mean to ‘Sally?’ Well, you just stand up for her and be her friend!” The lessons varied by the situations with each child. My oldest, Claire, endured her share of bullying. To her credit, she became aware of its effects on herself and other children and decided not to participate with the class aggressor. Throughout her Catholic elementary years she was then a target, the one who would not follow along. By sixth grade, she had had enough and moved to a different school. There the dynamic was completely different; the bullying was subtler, more akin to shunning. Oh, she was invited to Christian lock-ins, sit-ins, camps, mixers. She heard of the wonderful, outward ways these Christian girls were spreading Jesus’ love. The problem was that these were the very girls who wouldn’t talk to her at lunch or invite her to their homes. These were the girls who signed her yearbook “Your Friend in Christ.” My middle child, Catherine, took my reminders too far, I think. By fourth grade she worried constantly about a girl, Mary G, being bullied in her class. She fretted on the ride home from school every day that Mary had been teased or that she had been picked last once again for a team. She wasn’t for sure that Mary even realized what was going on around her, but the bullying nagged at Catherine enough that she asked me what to do about it. I remembered my own experience with a relentless bully in grade school and felt that at some point, the bullying would affect Mary as it did me. What I did after that is something I somewhat regret, but I was not about to stand by and do nothing, especially after I witnessed the bullying myself. One day I was volunteering at the school and trying to facilitate an art lesson in Catherine’s class. “She’s not sitting at our table!” one girl exclaimed when I indicated for Mary to sit in an unoccupied seat. “We don’t want her germs! She’s a ‘retard!’” “Why?” I asked. “Because she’s such a baby. We don’t like her,” came the answer. Catherine explained to me that the germ thing was their latest tactic. The popular girls convinced the class that Mary was riddled with so called “retard” germs that would rub off on people. If she sat beside them and touched things, they could touch them later and pick up the germs and so on. I went home and called the parents. I chose not to talk to the teacher because her personal access to favored children made me question her impartiality. I never heard from Mary’s parents after that. They avoided any contact with me because I believe that the teacher portrayed me as a lunatic. My youngest was bullied throughout her elementary years but is now over the abuse. Once I heard that other girls in her class were also being bullied. I asked her to intervene or at least be nice to the girls. She said, “Mom I can’t take up for anybody. If I do they will come after me again. At least right now they leave me alone.” She maintained this mantra until she graduated from the 8th grade. She kept her head down, her opinions to herself, and only opened up and let her sweet spirit soar when she entered high school in another town. I constantly puzzle over friends’ comments like “I know my daughter is mean to kids sometimes, but maybe she’s not too mean,” or “…but all kids are mean with attitude these days,” or “…but what is a parent to do?” I just shake my head in wonder at these comments. Is it enough to take children to church, volunteer at the annual bazaar, or take food to the sick and shut in as these people do? I have to believe it is not, because I know nice parents who do these acts of charity faithfully but have children who are bullies or who are selectively unkind. Somehow, somewhere, the example is lost. My parents wisely recognized that they were the ones to impart moral teaching to their children. They actually had conversations on the subject, I found out recently. Their approach was by example–we witnessed the kindness and compassion they showed to my father’s patients every day, and the ones who paid were never treated any differently than those couldn’t. But there was something more. When my father took us on house calls with fresh packages of roast from his recently butchered cow tucked under his arm for one of his patients, we knew he was offering more than just medical care. He was sharing of himself. On these house calls, down back roads and across paths that sometimes took a jeep to navigate, my father spent hours talking to patients about their issues but also their crops, farming plans, cows, education. He didn’t discriminate; he loved all people and found them enormously interesting. He recognized their value. At home there was never a derogatory word about anyone spoken in our house. No bias, insults, anything. We didn’t hear the “N” word, hear someone called fat, ugly, stupid, or lazy. Indeed, our experience was the opposite. We were not raised to judge. Is it, then, our tongues that betray us? Our rush to judgment that someone is not being Christian or Jewish or whatever enough? Do we believe that our own brand of religion has the corner on morality so that we can observe others critically and value them as worthy or not? When we do, our children suffer for it. It is only by understanding that it takes both actions and words and avoidance of derogatory or judgmental language that we find the way to affect our children and make our world a better place. I am reminded of this now by my oldest, who chafes at any observation of people that might be demeaning. She has caught me offhandedly commenting on someone’s outward appearance and gently reminded me of my own lessons years ago by saying, “Mom, that is unkind.” At these moments I am shamed, but I am also renewed.