It Takes All Kinds—And Many Kindnesses

It was dark. Coyote-dark. Spider-dark. On a Friday night in October, I found myself cruising down an obscure parkway in Georgia named after a not-so-obscure Confederate general. What was I, a New Yorker, doing in the woods in an enormous black Camry? With a GPS that insisted on taking me in circles?  

True confession: I was there as a proud mama, a mother of a college senior who had qualified for a regional cross-country competition on some remote field outside of Atlanta. I was there because I held this boy dear to my heart as strongly as I had the day he was born 21 years ago. Ever since then, our lives have been intertwined with moments of excitement and calm: two introverts trying to navigate a smooth course in an extroverted world.

It was a glorious day at the race the next day, and as my son and I climbed into that rental car for the trek back to the airport, I was struck by his somewhat snarky question: “Why in the world did you rent this car? It is so not you.” For a split second, I questioned my decision: Am I no longer a strong woman who knows what she wants and can stand up for herself? His comment got me thinking about the scene with the Alamo attendant the night before and then about my work in fostering cultures of kindness in schools, and before I had the chance to verbalize my reply, my son had fallen into a well-deserved slumber. I was left alone with my memories.

Alamo attendant, with a slightly sorrowful tone: “You can choose any car in this row.” Overwhelming, but kind of fun.  

Me, tuning into Alamo’s emotions (no, I never got his name): “Really? If you were me, which car would you choose? You look like you know a lot about cars.” You really look overworked and underpaid and in need of some kind of validation.

Alamo, with his frown dissolving into a grin: “If it were me, I would choose the black Camry. I love the bigger size, and it gets great gas mileage.” You seem very pleased I asked for your advice even though this is definitely not my first choice.

Me: “Thanks so much for your help. You are really an expert.”

Truth be told, I am most comfortable with compact vehicles and am quite taken with the smaller red car further down the row, and I’ve been known to experience panic on the road when driving minivans or SUVs. Yet, I proceeded to load my Swiss luggage into the enormous trunk of this oversized car. Thank you, Alamo, for being so generous with your suggestion. I hope my small act made a difference in your life.

I work with our Quiet Schools Ambassadors to foster cultures of kindness in their schools. As we define it, a culture of kindness is one in which each and every member is able to interact with others with authenticity and empathy, invoking the courage to be “emotionally honest,” which “begins with the capacity to walk in another’s shoes.”  

Cultivating such a combination of self-awareness and perspective-taking begins with an understanding of the power of temperament and the ways in which personality styles shape how we communicate, manage energy, and make decisions. How can you as an introvert be empathic with an extrovert who craves social stimulation as a restorative activity—when you yearn for the solitary opposite—if you do not fundamentally understand self and other through the lens of temperament? Or how can you as an extrovert be empathic with an introvert who needs time to weigh options before making a decision—when you tend to think on your feet—if you are ignorant of the vastly different style of those on the other side of the temperament spectrum?  

Additionally, such work in our schools requires that we devote ample time to nurturing three core character strengths in our students, which, when combined, prompt them to engage in acts of kindness:

  • interpersonal self-control, which allows one to respond to others in socially appropriate ways
  • social and emotional intelligence, which involves the ability to understand one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions and then use this understanding to inform decisions and actions
  • gratitude, the appreciation for the benefits we receive from others and the desire to reciprocate

The time is right for kindness: a new Arizona state study finds that parents should emphasize kindness over academic achievement for the overall well-being and long-term success of their children. The good news for educators is that a recent Sesame Street survey reveals that a majority of parents in this country actually do believe that kindness is more important than academic achievement. As I was thinking about the fact that these parents also report they fear the world is an unkind place for children, my son woke up.

I greeted him by stating, “It was a random act of kindness.” And it felt really good.