As I finished my purchase at our local grocery store, the clerk smiled at me and we wished each other a good day. Our younger son, now taller than I am, chimed in. He looked straight at her (sometimes grumpy) face and said with genuine kindness: "Have a good afternoon!"
Her face brightened. Our boys have that effect on people; there is something about a kind, polite, genuine kid that makes people feel good.
When I was a brand new mother, a friend told me about an interaction with her four year old son. When she disciplined him with a time-out, he told her "you're mean, mommy." Her response has stayed with me for many years:
I'm mean sometimes because I never want you to be the kid no one wants to be around.
That statement is part of why our boys are polite and people enjoy them. As parents, we encouraged kindness and respectful behavior, and also set boundaries with them that made sense -- and followed through with consequences.
I'd like to take the credit for that, but I think it has more to do with their nature and many role models. Because of their observations of the behavior of their father, their grandparents, aunt & uncles, close neighbors and adult friends, and yes, me, they understand that each person must be valued. Even people who are mean, who behave badly, must be treated respectfully. That doesn't mean they are respected; those are two different things.
When our younger son and I walked out of the grocery store, the expression on the clerk's face stayed with me for a while. I was smiling, off in my head, when our son asked me: "Why are you smiling like that?"
It took me a moment to realize I was smiling "like that" and to put my thoughts into words. He knows me -- so he waited. I asked him:
is it fake to act pleasant when you don't feel pleasant?
And then I said:
My friend and I recently had a conversation about the difference between being fake, acting like you're happy when you're really not, and being kind to people despite not being happy at every moment.
Did you see how that woman lit up when you smiled and told her to have a good afternoon? She glowed. What you said, and the way you said it with genuine kindness, changed the flow of her day. If you were having a bad day but still made an effort to do what you did with her, is that being fake? Or is it being kind? For her, that momentary interaction was the difference between slogging through the afternoon, and feeling a small burst of warmth and satisfaction.
You often have that effect on people, Max. They can't help but smile when you're around. I hope you understand that, and that you continue to choose -- that you are intentional -- to be kind toward others. There is something about you that makes people want to be their best selves when you're around. You're magical!
Our conversation turned to something else, and for the moment I was distracted from that introspection.
In the shower the next morning, our conversation came back to me.
We have many opportunities in our days to make that tiny bit of difference in each interaction. We have a choice to say "thank you" to the person in front of us, to wave and smile at the driver who lets us merge into traffic. We have a choice when we hold the door for someone coming in behind us to smile with genuine kindness and care. Why wouldn't we make that effort with every single person in our day? It takes less energy to smile at someone than it does to be angry, or to actively ignore a person.
Being kind doesn't mean letting people treat you like a doormat, sometimes you have to choose confrontation. Being unkind won't change things, so keeping in mind the result you want from the confrontation really helps in keeping emotion out of a conflict. I recently told someone "you're not nice to me." I didn't add any emotion to the comment, just a matter-of-fact observation to explain why I avoided interaction with her. I often use a strategy I wrote about, imagining that if I was recording it, how I would want to see myself years after the confrontation.
Think for a moment about the people you want to be around, the people you enjoy spending time with. I'm a lot pickier these days about where I choose to spend my energy and time, and I choose people who are positive, the ones who are curious, and who choose to learn, grow, and be kind. This doesn't mean we are always happy, real life is often not happy.
We all have choices to make, every day, and I choose kindness. What will you choose?
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