Essay: When is kindness not kindness? When it’s twisted into nonsense and crammed down your throat by Kyle Heger

If your e-mail inbox contained materials from a county jail cheerfully announcing its participation in something called “The Great Kindness Challenge,” complete with smiling faces, peace signs and flower graphics, you might feel a queasy sense of disconnection. Then, you’d know how I felt getting a similar message from my son’s public elementary school, which, in my experience, is little better than a typical “correctional facility” in terms of how kindly it treats its warehoused population.

My first reaction was “School administrators are at it again, adding ‘kindness’ to the list of words such as ‘respect,’ ‘critical thinking,’ ‘safety,’ and yes, even ‘love’ that they deform for their own purposes.” And, the more I looked into this boondoggle, the more I found that my first reaction was justified.

Granted: Words are by their nature elastic, open to some interpretation. But, if they are to serve as a medium for communication, they must bear some kind of commonality of meaning. Hence the usefulness of attempts at definition.

A look at the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (hardly a radical, “alternative” authority) uses words such as “sympathetic, helpful, gentle and forbearing” to define the state of being “kind.”  But, as used in materials included in “The Great Kindness Challenge” the word “kindness” is a catch-all under to include almost any activity, even those that have nothing to do with kindness as defined above, or can even reflect its opposite.

“Peace Dumbed Down”

The “challenge” is a turnkey program provided by Kids for Peace.  A look at the group’s website reveals it as a nonprofit organization that seems to use “peace” the same way it uses “kindness,” as an umbrella for a hodgepodge of supposedly “positive” behaviors.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for peace. In fact, I’ve been a peace activist ever since I was nine-years-old, signing petitions, marching, contacting elected officials, serving on committees to oppose selective service registration, the nuclear weapons build up and military interventions all over the world. I was even the disarmament coordinator for Greenpeace Great Lakes and worked for Ground Zero, Freeze Voter 84 and the Contra Costa County Nuclear Weapons Freeze.

But the kind of peace-making to which Kids for Peace resorts is a dumbed-down version of the real thing. It reminds me of the kiddie-menu fare that I despised so much as a child. Those things confine minors to a dietary ghetto, while this group’s “wag more, bark less” programs confine them to a political ghetto. Such programs often try using developmental-psychology to defend themselves, explaining that kids aren’t ready for the truth. What they end up doing is giving kids a bunch of misinformation, with the hope that they’ll eventually straighten it all out.

One assumption of the group seems to be that if only people understood each other more, there would be no violence. Despite the fact that the European countries involved in World Wars I and II were all linked by centuries of intimate contact, inter-marriage, cross-cultural pollination and business connections. And the fact that the warring Asian parties in the World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were hardly strangers.

Another assumption seems to be that if only people treated each other nicely enough, there would be peace. As if competitions for power and resources or a clash of world views and values aren’t the main causes of war. Usually, I feel a bit taken aback by bumper stickers that say, “If you want peace, work for justice” because they seem too threatening, but, compared to this treacle, I find them a breath of fresh air.

“‘Kindness’ in Action”

My son’s school kicked off the challenge by having students participate in group “affirmations” about how they “choose” to be kind. So much for the value school officials put on students’ freedom of thought, feeling and expression. This exercise puts me in mind of rituals during which people were forced to make propaganda statements out loud in the former Soviet Union during its Stalinist phase and in China during the Cultural Revolution. It also smacks of people here in the U.S. forced to sign loyalty oaths and pledge allegiance to a flag.

Third-to-fifth graders at the school got a version with fifty kindness “challenges” to perform. They were told to perform at least 30. If goals are met, the children will be rewarded by seeing the principal work on top of the school roof for one day. Talk about inspiration.

A look at a few activities on this list makes my point about how thin the program stretches the word “kindness.”

“SMILE AT 25 PEOPLE.” Does smiling really strike you as a “kind” act? How would you feel if you were one of the 25 people lucky enough to receive one of these smiles and were told that it was bestowed upon you as a “kindness”? What if the people who smiled were even more explicit, saying that they did it as an act of “sympathy” and “forbearance” and that they counted it as a “challenge”? The chances are pretty good you might be tempted to tell them to cram that kindness right back where it came from.

Of course, there are other types of smiles that might be more pleasing to recipients, for instance one that springs from a genuine, spontaneous pleasure in seeing them. But smiling by policy is, at best, a pretty cold affair.

“Compliment 5 People.” Right. Telling people what they want to hear is always kind. For instance, when you tell someone that his hairdo is attractive and he is thereby induced to keep trotting proudly about with that thing on his head even though everyone else laughs behind his back. Or when you say to the school bully, “I really think it’s great the way you shoved that little kid in the mud puddle.” The path to enablement is often paved with compliments. And who could imagine anything unpleasant about complimenting someone in a position to grant you favors? A little toadyism, anyone?

“Tell a joke and Make Someone Laugh.” Surely, by now, everyone knows that not all jokes, even ones that make people laugh, are kind. Feel free to provide your own examples here.

“Learn Something New About Your Teacher.” Yes, like her gambling addiction, her track record of promiscuous and unprotected sex or her compulsive lying. Now those are nice!

“Give Your Friend a High Five.” Right. After he runs over a chipmunk with his mountain bike. Congratulations, like compliments, don’t always encourage behavior in others that could meaningfully be called “kind.”

“Sit with a New Group of Kids at Lunch.” Yes. You are God’s gift to other kids. You’re doing them a big favor by sitting with them. Kudos for sharing the wealth. Maybe you can become really popular by announcing to them that you’ve joined them out of kindness, not because they have something to offer to you, for instance, companionship.

“Step Up for Someone in Need.” O.K.  As if there’s no way this can end up as a self-aggrandizing act that amounts to condescension. People love to be treated as charity cases. For example, the blind person who is “helped” across an intersection even though she hasn’t asked for help, doesn’t want help and is perfectly able to cross on her own. Revenge may indeed be a dish best served cold. I really have no idea. But clearly kindness can be a dish better in the serving than in the receiving.

“Hold the Door Open For Someone.” I have two words for you to consider here before you get too excited about how kind you were to do this: “sexism” and “ageism.” See the “Step up for Someone in Need” above for an overview of how treating people as needy can backfire.

“Be on Time for School.” Yeah. Very kind. Although I think the word “punctual” might be a little more on-target. Like many other activities on the list, this one clearly seems more a technical matter than one of kindness. But, hey, if you don’t value honesty as much as you do “kindness,” you might be able to make it work.

“Listen to Your Teacher the First Time.” Here we have obedience parading under the “kindness” banner.  Combining this with all the suggested activities that involve thanking school authority figures (superintendents, principals, bus drivers, crossing guards, librarians, nurses, volunteers) will give you a pretty good picture of young sycophants-in-training.

“A Case Study”

On the day the group affirmations took place, I observed what use two third graders made of the checklist. I was surprised that they did seem motivated by a desire to see the principal working on the roof. But I had the sense that this wasn’t because they felt this was something admirable on her part, but because they wanted to see her look ridiculous.

They quickly buzzed through the list, checking off as many items as they could, using past experiences as criteria. When I said that I thought that the idea behind the program was for them to only count actions they took after they’d received the checklist, they were momentarily stymied. But they quickly found work-arounds. For instance, for “Smile at 25 People,” they smiled at each other and me repeatedly until they reached a count of 25.  For “Draw a Picture and Give it to Someone” they knocked off fast doodles and exchanged them. You get the idea.

I applaud the ingenuity and critical-thinking skills they exhibited. But I didn’t see a lot of kindness brought into play.

After a few minutes of this kind of thing, even the inspiring image of the principal sitting atop the roof lost some of its sparkle, and they dropped the checklists, saying, “This is stupid,” and moved on to other things.

Are teachers and administrators really still as out of touch with the reality of student experience as they were when I was in elementary school decades ago? Do they really believe that a program like this will do anything more valuable than confirming the high esteem of children who already pat themselves on the back for being kind and leaving the other children untouched in any but the most superficial way? Or are the adults simply going through the motions, hoping to placate each other or figures higher up in the organizational hierarchy?

The emphasis on kindness takes on even more disturbing implications when viewed as part of a larger trend at my son’s school to reach beyond students’ external behavior and try controlling their private, subjective lives. They are told that they are grateful, that they are respectful, that they work their hardest, that they love their teachers. They are told they must be attentive. Their progress reports measure how “positive” their attitudes are.

The school conflict-management program looks an awful lot more like a conflict-suppression program. Students are told to say they’re “sorry” even if they’re not and that they “forgive” even when they don’t. An “Emotion Management” program emphasizes reducing or eliminating students’ “disruptive” emotions and “calming down” their anger, frustration, worry, anxiety and blaming.

While this sometimes takes place under the banner of “social justice” and the goals of “inclusion,” “diversity” and “tolerance,” it has the effect of driving any hint of dissension or disagreement underground, churning out a monocrop of  “Good Little Doobies” who respond to authority not only with obedience but with actual enthusiasm.

“You’ll Be Kind and You’ll Like It!”

Walking into my son’s school with the “challenge” in full swing was not unlike walking into a scene from “1984.” Big Brother was speaking for the children around every corner. Posters declared, “We Choose to Be Kind” and “We Believe that … Kindness is Everything.” Get that? Not just one among other (presumably important) things, but Everything. How’s that for saddling ideas with superlatives to the point where they are dumbed down to nonsense? Strung upon the walls were light-bulb shapes on which the students in my son’s class had been told to complete the sentence, “I will light up the world with kindness by ….” Of course, most simply filled in the blanks with words from the checklist.

Has it occurred to the program’s creators, or to people at the school who are foisting it off on us, that public schools don’t have any legitimate business trying to inculcate kindness in students? Or, that actually it is their business to avoid such mind control? Isn’t kindness, in most meaningful definitions, a subjective state? Since when do we pour tax payer dollars into an institution so it can brain wash our children, to tell them, in essence, “You’ll Be Kind and You’ll Like It!”?

Of course, on the surface, kindness is one of those subjective states to which it might seem that no reasonable person could object. But, as the above review showed, the activities recommended as part of the “Great Kindness Challenge” aren’t necessarily acts of kindness at all.

Consider the issue of precedents, and you might see that the “Great Kindness Challenge” casts ominous shadows. Even assuming that public schools will wield the power to shape subjective experience in ways of which you approve, what is to guarantee that, once given this power, they will always use it in ways of which you approve? Once given the power to cultivate kindness today, what is to stop them from cultivating cruelty tomorrow if it becomes convenient?

Consider this program in the “best use” context. Assuming that a school has limited time, energy and attention, and that there are more significant things to do with those resources than investing them in this program, is the school anywhere justified in using them this way?

“The Risk of Counter-Productivity”

In several ways, a program like the “challenge” actually threatens to undermine its stated purpose.

First, by being force-fed, the program runs the risk of becoming, for some students another task to be dodged, for some students another waste of time to be tolerated, and for yet other students another program to be opposed. This last is a predictable reaction from highly perceptive students who are already learning to maintain their independence by automatically distrusting and rejecting messages from authorities.

Being told that you are kind by the same people who tell you that you are guilty of breaking rules even when you’re not, who tell you that you “adore” a book even when you can’t stand it and that you “loved” a field trip even when you think it stank makes for a pretty big credibility problem.

Hypocrisy is not too strong a word in this case.

Second, by trivializing kindness into a set of quick, easily performed and easily measured stunts, the program risks being taken at face value by students who already pride themselves on their kindness, their ability to win approval from authority or their ability to out-compete their school mates. On the other hand, the independent-minded students are given just another reason to reject the whole notion of kindness out of hand as more garbage spewed from out by authority.

Third, presenting kindness as either a given or something that can be easily achieved simply by choice, risks making students complacent about the experience. If they come to believe that kindness is a universal constant, they have little incentive to observe or cultivate it.

Fourth, by offering external rewards for “kindness,” the program could easily lead some children to believe that kindness is something someone gives someone else to get “treats” from a third party, rather than being a naturally occurring experience that can be intrinsically rewarding.

Acts of “kindness” done in this context bear an unsettling resemblance to the kind of tricks dogs can be taught to do in exchange for a handful of Beggin’ Bits, tricks like “shaking hands.”

“A Martyred Sigh”

I can easily predict how some enthusiasts of this program will respond if they read this essay:  a martyred sigh and the much-overused words, “No good deed goes unpunished.” But, in reality, a more accurate summarization of what I have attempted here would be, “This particular smug, superficial, ill-conceived attempt at brain washing has not gone criticized.”

Need I say that I am taking to task not kindness itself but the uses to which the word is put, in particular, misguided attempts to cram it down people’s throats as if they were so many geese being force-fed through esophageal slits in order to more efficiently produce pate de foie gras?

In fact, I feel that I am defending kindness from people whose efforts will end up misrepresenting, counterfeiting and cheapening it. Kindness is a deep experience which seems to blossom in most people if not stifled. Under the right circumstances it grows organically as people’s brains and bodies develop and as their experience with others widens.  Seeking to tinker with something so profound is a bit like trying to raise more marketable fruits more cost-efficiently by growing them where they don’t belong, with growing media, light, nutrients and pesticides that are all synthetic. You could well end up with fruit that is weak, tasteless and diseased and with an environment that is poisoned.

Kindness Checklist Part Two (196 Words)

By Kyle Heger

Some go-getting elementary school students might find that they have completed all the activities suggested in the Great Kindness Challenge. If they want to take on some more challenges in the same spirit, I suggest that they try the following:

1 Wear suspenders

2 Agree shrilly

3 Wink

4 Tell someone using a wheelchair what an “inspiration” he is.

5 Pinky-swear

6 Kowtow

7 Ride a unicycle

8 Say “Cool”

9 Use a tuning fork

10 Say, “Patience is a virtue” to someone who is angry.

11 Seal an envelope

12 Call something “cute”

13 Perspire

14 Offer to flush toilets for people

15 Lick a stamp

16 Simper

17 Pop a friend’s pimple

18 Tell a classmate with whom you’ve never interacted that you love him. Then stick by his side all day.

19 Open a door

20 Grind black pepper

21 Give Disney princess erasers to girls and Darth Vader erasers to boys.

22 Amputate someone’s gangrenous limb.

23 Say “Awesome”

24 Polish your teachers’ shoes with a good spit shine

25 Blow kisses indiscriminately

26 Inhale

27 Exhale

28 Do the splits

29 Paint a smiley face on a hearse

30 Rhyme

31 Giggle

32 Call an old woman a “young lady.”

33 Assure a permanently paralyzed boy that he’ll be “up and running” in no time.

34 Floss a stranger’s teeth

35 Take a selfie

36 Use a shoe horn

37 Flip a coin

38 Add numbers

39 Subtract numbers

40 Tell a morbidly obese man than he is looking “in the pink.”

41 Turn a knob

42 Say “wahoo!”

43 Blush

44 Talk like Donald Duck

45 Volunteer to euthanize someone’s suffering pet

46 Use exclamation points

47 Hurry

48 Slow down

49 Enter

50 Exit

Kyle Heger

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Kyle Heger, former managing editor of Communication World magazine, lives in Albany, CA.    His writing has won a number of awards and been published in 44 publications, including Blue Collar Review, Nerve Cowboy and U.S. 1 Worksheets.

If you enjoyed When is kindness not kindness? When it’s twisted into nonsense and crammed down your throat, leave a comment and let Kyle know.

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