Aesop had it right. No small act of kindness is ever wasted. Nor is any attempt to teach it. Wrestling with and overcoming our own desire for the self and choosing the other is no easy task. For a five year old (and those of us who feel or act five at times), sometimes the effort is Herculean and ought to be celebrated as such.
A few days ago, I was spending a beautiful morning in the park with my five year old and his three year old friend (see my previous post for another description of these two). We savored the warm sunshine, collected sticks, explored a part of the beach known during low tide as “snail island” (to quote my son: this is the most awesomest island I’ve ever been on!). As we were leaving the beach, each boy had a favorite stick in hand and we came to a fork in the path, and as might be expected, each boy wanted to go a different way.
I calmly told the boys that we needed to agree (that’s more or less how our family operates; it provides a chance to practice consensus building and negotiation as well as increasing all of our flexibility). Just as calmly each boy repeated that he wanted to go his own way. Hmmm. I then asked if either boy would be willing to be kind to the other, and let him have his choice. Believe it or not, this works about half the time with my own two kids and it does help when my husband and I model for them how to do it. But back to the boys.
When I asked if either of them would be kind, my son pointed at his friend and said “He can.” Meaning, he can be kind to me and let me have my way. I smiled and decided that this was a moment in which to be fully present. Many times, more often than I care to admit, the default is to hurry the boys along, to scold or chide, or to be irritated and ignore the subtext of the situation. But today I had the grace to be present.
I knelt down in front of my boy who was casually twirling his stick. “Honey,” I began, “this is actually pretty important. It is not easy to be kind, and I know you don’t want to. But now I am asking you to. You are bigger than he is, and have more practice and self-control. Can you please be kind and let him choose the way home? If you can’t, then you’ll have to leave your sticks behind and I will choose the way home. I’m not mad, but when we can’t be kind then everyone loses.” My son was solemn and I could see that his brain was processing what I was saying. “So, do you think you can be kind to your friend?” He was quiet for a minute and then announced, “Mommy, it’s too hard.”
Ahhh, yes. Yes it is, my little one. It’s very hard to give up something you want for the sake of the other. “I hear you sweetheart. But sometimes we have to tell our bodies and our brains to do things we don’t want to do. It is very hard. But I’m asking again, can you do it?” He shook his head. “It’s ok then. You both can leave your sticks here and I’ll choose our path home.” He promptly burst into tears.
I hugged him tightly. He was right. It’s sometimes too heard to bear what is required of us to be kind…to be human. After a minute of murmuring to him, I pulled back and looked into his tearstained face. Wiping his tears away gently, I wished I could simply scoop him up and take him home. But this was one of those moments; I knew that if we could conquer this moment, he was on his way to conquering himself. What better gift can a parent give to a child?
“Honey,” I whispered. “I know that this is very hard. Can you try again?” His eyes welled fresh and his chin quivered. He shook his head. Then, he took a breath and slightly nodded.
“You did it!” I crowed. “You convinced your brain and your body to be kind, even when it was so hard for you!” He still had tears, but the corners of his eyes lifted a little. He knew better than I did the struggle he had just overcame. His friend, who had been watching the whole interaction, came closer and solemnly said “Thank you.”
If ever I witnessed a divine moment, it was then. Watching my five year old struggle through the process and overcome himself to be kind to another, and having a three year old identify and validate that struggle…it was a beautiful thing.