Grown-ups, have you forgotten all the lessons you learned about kindness when you were little?
There are a few common lessons most kids learn when they’re small (not to mention some of the less common ones!), but are we as adults practicing these lessons about kindness now that we’re grown?
1. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
We teach this to kids so that they don’t go around saying every little thought that comes to mind. Kids are born with no social filter, and as cute and charming as it can be sometimes, it can also be very hurtful to their little buddies. So we tell them to please not tell their friends things that will make them sad.
Well, grown-ups, this applies to you, too. Especially on social media. You don’t need to tell your friend that they looked better with shorter hair, that their career choice is a waste of time, or that they need to lose a few pounds. Unless they expressly ask you for these opinions (as in, “Hey, did you like my hair better when it was shorter?”), keep them to yourself.
You don’t know what kind of day anybody is having, or necessarily even why they make the choices they make, but it’s not your business. And most of the time your opinion is irrelevant to everyone but you.
2. Keep your hands to yourself.
In preschool and kindergarten, it’s hard for kids not to grab and poke and shove one another whenever the mood strikes. So we teach kids to keep their hands to themselves. During circle time, we ask all the kids to fold their hands into their laps when they sit down, so that they can focus on the teacher and their friends can, too.
We also remind tiny kids that touching our friends can hurt or bother them, and that can make our friends sad.
Now that you’re a grown-up, this still applies. You don’t need to touch strangers on the subway, or even at work. It’s not professional to touch your co-worker’s elbow like you might on a date, or to give your cubicle-mate a shoulder massage. Worse, it can be a violation of their personal space and make them uncomfortable or even trigger feelings of being violated or disrespected. Ladies, this goes for you, too! Men also deserve their personal space.
So just fold up those hands and keep them on your desk or in your pockets. Err on the side of caution. After all, nobody ever said, “That person I barely know just doesn’t touch me enough!”
3. There’s always room for one more friend.
One reason we chose the preschool we sent our kids to is their playground motto, “There’s always room for one more friend.” This school actively worked to teach kids about inclusion, and to discourage the creation of cliques or any sort of “othering” of children.
As kids get older, including everyone can become more challenging, but those old preschool rules still apply. For instance, if your child is having a birthday party, you probably tell them not to talk about it at school because friends who were not invited might feel sad.
Now that we’re older, especially with social media, feelings can still be hurt. Before you post photos of yourself and friends out whooping it up, think about who might see it, how they might feel and most importantly, your own motivation.
Yes, check your motivation. If you get a little thrill out of others seeing you and your pals doing something they weren’t invited to, or something they aren’t able to do (i.e. a fancy vacation or a guys’ trip to Vegas), you need to check yourself.
Yes, it’s fun to share good times on social media. But this isn’t high school. If you or (your social circle) are making other people feel like crap, you’re basically stuck in adolescence. And it’s not cute.
4. The golden rule.
You know this one, “do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
We teach this to our kids in an effort to help grow their sense of empathy. “Austin, when you and Nick tease Allie about her shoes, how do you think that makes her feel? How would you feel if Allie and Nick teamed up to say something mean to you?”
The golden rule applies from everything to driving etiquette (you hate it when people don’t use their turn signals, so imagine how they feel when you don’t use yours) to marriage. Treat people with respect, the way you’d like to be treated.
Even better than the golden rule is the platinum rule, where you treat people the way they want to be treated. As in, just because something doesn’t upset or offend you doesn’t mean everyone feels the same way you do!
5. Don’t expect people to read your mind.
Kids sometimes have tantrums over things you had no idea were even happening. Your three year-old throws himself on the ground and screams because you didn’t bring his favorite toy to the playground. The toy you had no idea he even wanted. Your six year old breaks into tears because she hates spaghetti. You wonder, Since when?
Same goes for adult relationships. Ask for what you want, set boundaries, and don’t expect people (even your partner!) to just know what you’re thinking and feeling. You’re an adult, if you expect your kids to do it, you need to do it too.
Ask for what you need clearly, don’t play mind games or manipulate people. Tell the people you care about how you feel in a thoughtful way, so that your relationships can grow deeper and more solid.
6. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
We love the idea of teaching our kids to be accepting of people who are different. We idealize the notion of our children having friends with disabilities and of different races. We teach our kids not to judge people until they get to know them.
But do we follow that advice? Very often the answer is no. If you’re white, look around at your own circle of friends. Are they mostly white? Do you have deep or latent assumptions about people based upon the very profound – those struggling with poverty, for instance – or the very shallow, such as body type or the clothing they wear?
If you wouldn’t want your kid making assumptions about people, you can’t allow yourself to, either. Listen to the messages you’ve learned throughout your life. What did your parents teach you about people of other races? How about what the media tells you about people with bigger bodies than you? What is your gut reaction when you see a person who uses a wheelchair?
Face those initial reactions upfront – don’t just push them down – and figure out where they came from. Then go in and actively debunk them! It’s not a simple process, sometimes it takes a lifetime, but it’s worth it.
7. You’re not the center of the universe.
We teach this to our kids in a lot of ways, including most the the lessons listed above. But at the core of helping your child become a good person is the lesson that they are not entitled to more than anybody else.
My husband and I have taught our kids the phrase, “Look up and around.” When we say that, we’re asking our boys to stop a moment, look at their surroundings and notice who is around and how their actions and choices affect others in the room. Are they horsing around in a place with something breakable? Are they about to bump into somebody? Is something they’re saying or doing going to hurt someone’s feelings? Are they disturbing people’s peace by being loud in a quiet restaurant?
We also actively tell our kids not to create more work for others. Don’t shoot the paper from your straw at your brother and then leave the paper on the floor. Don’t make a mess around your seat in a restaurant, and if you do, clean it up.
I thought grown-ups understood this until my husband and I had a double date with a buddy of his and his new girlfriend. The woman drank a bit too much and ended up dropping edamame shells all over the floor in the sushi restaurant where we were eating. On the way out, I stopped and cleaned up around her seat, just like I used to when my kids were babies. She’d also dropped two forks, 3 bones from ribs, and her dirty napkin.
Grown-ups, you are not the center of the universe. You’re not entitled to two parking spots, cutting in line at the pharmacy, or going 45 MPH in a residential neighborhood just because you’re late. You did nothing to earn the right to be rude or to put others in danger.
You’re also not more entitled to the attention of the cute bartender than any other patron, nor are you entitled to touch them. You’re not entitled to tell people on the street to “smile” just so you have an excuse to talk to them. You’re not the center of anyone’s universe but your own, and everyone has their own struggles.
If you’ve ever noticed that a lot of grown-ups act like children, I suspect it’s because they’ve forgotten the lessons they were supposed to learn when they were kids. We all make mistakes, but if we can remember some of the most basic lessons we learned in kindergarten about being kind to others, we really could change the world.
Photo: Flickr/Neal Fowler
*author note: this post has been slightly edited.