Back-to-School Lesson in Kindness

With the new school year approaching, we frequently talk with children about how to academically have a good school year -- how to be organized, complete homework on time, study for tests and get good grades.
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I spent the first 11 years of my life in Mansfield Center, CT, a small, sleepy town in the northeastern part of the state. Right before the seventh grade, my family moved across the country to Los Altos, CA, a community right in the heart of the Silicon Valley, and I enrolled in the local public junior high school.

Junior high was an all-over culture shock. I always managed to feel about ten steps behind. The curriculum was much more difficult then what I was used to, and I would spend hours each night trying to finish homework. And it wasn't just the academics. I distinctly remember coming home from school one night and telling my mom, "I think we bought the wrong clothes." Everything was just different.

There were some people who were welcoming, though junior high isn't by definition the most inclusive place. Others were reliably apathetic. And, as there often is, there was one girl in particular who did all the typical mean junior high girl tricks -- tell her friends not to be friends with me, have them switch tables if I sat nearby for lunch and make sure I wasn't invited to her friends' birthday parties. Once, a classmate I thought I had become friends with came up to me and announced, "I was going to invite you to my party this weekend, but so-and-so said if you were invited she wouldn't come."

I made it through junior high relatively unscathed, went to a private high school nearby and then left for college. Fifteen years later, I was rolling out my mat at a yoga class in San Francisco and heard someone call out my name. I looked around, and saw her smiling at me -- the girl who had once been so mean, now a young woman. We made small talk after class about where we were living, what were doing and how life was going. I was friendly, but I couldn't help but wonder: Did she remember all the things she said and did? I had nearly forgotten, and perhaps she did as well.

A week later, we ran into each other at the same class. Once again, we spoke for a few moments afterwards -- she seemed so nice, but in my mind I still wondered: What am I doing here? And then, without missing a beat, she looked me squarely in the eye, and said:

"I am really sorry for how I treated you in junior high. I was awful, and you didn't deserve any of it."

All of the sudden, I felt tears forming and memories come flooding back -- about being the new girl in school, about feeling left behind, about trying to figure out the maze that was the Silicon Valley as a seventh grader who came from a small town in Connecticut. It was then that I realized something even greater: She carried that regret with her all these years, and I had not.

Sure, she probably didn't think about me every day, or worry about how her words and actions had affected me. But the way she looked at me that day, and the way she authentically delivered her apology, made me realize that her behavior left her with some semblance of regret. In reality, her behavior affected her far more than it affected me.

With the new school year approaching, we frequently talk with children about how to academically have a good school year -- how to be organized, complete homework on time, study for tests and get good grades. We often talk less about how to be a person of character -- how to err on the side of kindness, as George Saunders spoke of in his commencement speech at Syracuse this past year (if you haven't read it, I encourage you to print it out and discuss with your children).

So, this year, instead of simply asking your children how they will have a better school year in terms of school, sports and activities, ask them how they can become a better person. How can they be a person who is inclusive, has good character and treats others with kindness? To whom will they introduce themselves? How will they actively be part of their school community? What can they do when they see someone sitting alone? Which classmates can they make an effort to get to know?

We all have choices. Learning how to err on the side of kindness is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. It is the first step to show them how to live a life without regret. And that very well may be the most powerful childhood lesson of all.

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