Thursday, December 4, 2008

How Do Children Learn About Real Kindness?

Someone asked once whether our kids and grandkids will have the same sweet memories of their childhood as we had of ours. He was reflecting on his New York childhood - stick ball in the street, hanging out on the stoop - all that kind of stuff. The next time I saw him, I pointed out the realities of life in the '50s - segregation, back-street abortions, women "knowing their place" ... but he said that he wasn't talking about the greater world, just the insulated world of a child. And by the time our little group had finished talking about this, we decided that every generation has its own way of entertaining itself, and each generation grows up with fond memories of how it did just that. The details change, but the soft lens of nostalgia remains the same.

That may be so (and I believe it is), but sometimes I look at the world we have given our children, and I mourn my own childhood.

This reflection comes out of a class I taught a few weeks ago, to my fourth graders one Sunday morning. We were talking about Rebecca, Isaac's wife, whom we are told was known for her compassion because she took the time to water the camels Abraham's servant brought with him on his search for a wife for Abraham's son. So I began the conversation with, "Do you know anyone who is kind? What does that mean to you?" And the students all had answers - a parent, a close friend...and we thought about how to define kindness.

OK, so they're fourth graders - 9 years old, maybe? And they're suburban kids, so their lives are defined by school, Hebrew school, other activities, and mom's car. But as I thought about that morning, I realized something was missing.

Had you asked me or my cousins when we were young about someone who was kind, we would have answered, "The woman in Diamond Bakery who always smiles and gives us a cookie." My own kids (I hope) will remember some of the seniors at our synagogue in Anaheim, who smiled at them and always had a kind word for them.

I don't know if kids today are finding kindness outside their family and circle of BFFs. And that's an enormous loss.

Our society today is characterized by anonymity and super-sizing. We no longer go to the local butcher or bakery - we go to the Supermarket (or better - Costco or Wal-Mart). Sometimes we see the same checker twice in a row, sometimes not. The butchers are in the back, you pick up something from the showcase, and you move on. You have no one to yell at, "Take off all that fat!" You might find lots of employees eager to help you find your items, but I think that's less the people than the policy of the store, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's institutionalized kindness rather than spontaneous kindness. It comes from corporate, not the heart.

Our kids don't know what it means to walk into one shop for one item, another shop for another, to hear the owner (because if it wasn't the owner behind the case, it was an offspring) ask after your mother's family. They don't know what it means to run into people on the street (because after all, who walks?) and to stop at a bus stop (bus stop?) for a moment of rest and chat with an acquaintance. Meetings today are arranged. We don't run into anyone any more. Our social encounters are arranged by our PDAs or (for the tech-challenged) our Day-Runners. Further, our kids aren't exposed to people we don't arrange to expose them to. Their lives are very ordered and insulated and planned, and they aren't learning how to be spontaneously kind to a stranger because there are no strangers in their lives.

I mourn the loss of the richness of my childhood (who'da ever thought my childhood was rich? but it was), with its cast of characters from my block, the shopping strip on Fairfax, and the people I saw every day on the bus. I miss the accidental encounter that might have affected the rest of the day - when a boy gets up to let a pregnant woman sit in his seat, or the bus driver is especially kind and patient to an elderly passenger struggling to climb the stairs in the days before kneeling buses. I miss the days when we weren't always the center of every event, when sometimes we were observers and we learned from people we might never meet again. I miss the days when we were truly part of a community, a sweet little world where everybody knew your business and gave you their opinion whether you wanted it or not. I miss the days when every mother was every child's mother, and if you messed up (of course, I was perfect, but so I hear...), your mother knew about it before you ever got home.

How nice it would have been if my students had offered as examples of kindness, "The man who helped the woman with the cane across the street," or "The candy-striper who visited my grandma in the hospital." There's something about the kindness of strangers that always moves me, because it's done without any sense of obligation to a friend or relative (just the obligation of one human being to another). How often do our kids see that? And how did we let our world become so insulated that our kids see only the impersonal on the one hand or the warmth of family on the other, and nothing in between?

What will our children and grandchildren remember when they're grown up? Will they have warm memories of their childhood? Undoubtedly. They'll remember what brought them pleasure. But how sad that what brings them pleasure doesn't also teach them something profound about human relationships.

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