The Capacity to be Kind

Nick Pearl | Brevard, NC

I believe that everyone has the capacity to be kind. When working with some of my toughest students in wilderness therapy, this belief may have been momentarily challenged, but in the end I was amazed at how often, when given the chance, individuals will choose to be kind. At Mountain Sun Community School, I see this happen on a daily basis from every group that engages our students: parents offering their time, our older students offering to help teach a younger student, and our teachers being the ultimate role models in kindness.

Being human, we also have the capacity to be unkind. When I behave this way, I ask myself, “Nick, what do you need right now?” If I have the space and honesty with myself, I can determine that it may be that I haven’t exercised, eaten, slept, or hydrated enough. So, there was a survival need that hasn’t been met. Sometimes it is because I haven’t been social enough, which as an extrovert is a very powerful need in my life. So a social need hasn’t been met. I may be overwhelmed with work (time management issue), or nervous about an event I am leading (anxiety). Unfortunately, an easy reactionary outlet is to treat my family or loved ones less than kind.

Our homes are our laboratory for behavioral limits. We test how kind and how devious we can be at home because of the beauty of the unconditional love that can only exist within a family. There exists a safety at home, and these strategies for getting our needs met (both socially acceptable or not) can be explored.

Growing up, my sisters and I have epic stories of how we hurt each other, both physically and emotionally. These actions represented the unintentional actions and not our intentional attending to each other which happened probably more often.  I often find that when telling stories, we tend to focus on the epically “bad” instead of the epically “good.” The root of this stems from the fact that we learn through adversity, discomfort, and challenge. We are also proud of who we become through our lessons.

Part of these unintentional actions are due to primal or infantile patterns of behavior that worked as toddlers. As an example, when I was a child and was pushed to my limit, I coped by punching things. As a teen, my parents bought me a punching bag as a tool so that I would stop punching my door or wall (I never hit people). When I was stressed or agitated, I would have a punching bag session. The tool helped. As I grew older, that pattern of behavior (the actual acting out) does not exist, but through recognizing my desire to punch something as a child, I matured into an adult that can productively address an unmet need or an active stressor.

With children, when their behavior becomes challenging, an effective strategy for growth (but not necessarily immediate compliance) lies with the observe, wonder, leave space (OWLs) approach.

  • Observe: Witness and bring attention to the actual behavior (not your interpretation of it). Example: “I notice you are kicking your leg in my direction.” Notice it is not: “I notice that you are trying to kick me.”
  • Wonder: Ask what it means, by saying, “I wonder what the kicking is trying to tell me. I am eager to help, but cannot understand what the kicking means.” If addressed in a genuinely curious manner, you will teach your child to do the same.
  • Leave Space: Offer space until they are able to use words to ask for their need. Saying, “I love you. I am eager to help, and I am happy to help, once I can better understand what the problem is or what you need.”

Different children require different levels of debriefing and support through the process. It is also necessary that we manage our behavior in a way that we are intentional, and not reactive, or role model apologizing when we act inappropriately.

When we have loving homes and we grow up in a scary world we need a testing ground for antisocial behaviors. We learn that when we perpetrate these behaviors, our loved ones don’t like it, and we feel emotions that hopefully guide us the next time we have conflict. We also learn how to apologize and become kinder. I remember when my children were toddlers, there were times when other people would watch them and say, “they are so well behaved!” This sometimes came as a shock, because earlier that day they may have melted down for offering them S’mores (true story).

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