Kindness is strength. But try telling that to children | Emma Brockes

If you are a parent of young children who browses parenting websites, you will at some point have been pitched to about talent. You may be invited, via targeted advertising, to enrol your child in a Future School Global Maths Skill Assessment – “to see how they compare to peers globally”. You may be urged to consider the possibility – nay, probability – that they are “gifted” in some way, if not in maths, then in music or art. It’s window-dressing for lame subscription services, but the other day, assailed by this stuff, a line caught my eye that I haven’t been able to forget. “Talent isn’t everything,” read the copy. “The important thing is to teach your child to be kind.”

This positioning of “kindness” as oppositional to “talent” – and the impossibility, by implication, of a predisposition towards kindness itself being regarded as “talent” – is rife once you start looking for it. Kindness is, everywhere: the consolation prize, the donkey in the nativity play, the award for perfect attendance. The metric for gifted is limited in childhood to measurable and therefore narrow results; a child might learn to read early, but disciplines requiring maturity for their impact are sealed off as forms of prodigiousness. There are no seven-year-old fiction writing prodigies. There are no prodigies in kindness, either.

A few years ago, none of this would have struck me as noteworthy. It is true that, along with a lot of other “soft” values, kindness is something one comes to appreciate more with age and exhaustion. The phrase “give me a break”, once muttered by rote and gutted of meaning, is now one I use extremely literally. Parenting changes one’s parameters, too. In line with common assumptions, I believed a predisposition towards kindness wasn’t innate, but instead something entirely reliant on cultivation. These days I wonder about that, and about our determination to see it that way. Of my two children, one can be urged, pressured, bribed or cajoled into sharing and being less grabby – behaviour, in other words, which falls squarely within the normal range. The other child, more often than not, considers and accommodates the feelings of others, naturally and without being asked. Like a tiny 40-year-old, she uses phrases like “I’m happy for her” and “No, you go ahead.” It’s weirdly mature and occasionally eerie.

Which brings us to the problem of kindness; not only the fact that, in plenty of settings, it can be a code for weakness or neediness, but the fact that the word itself has been emptied out through misuse. Online, “be kind” is an order commonly used by men towards women with whom they disagree. And, like similar entreaties – “smile!” – has a silent “bitch” at the end of the phrase. Kindness in this context means giving in to another’s demands, a form of female pliancy rooted in renouncing one’s needs.

Real kindness is not this. Kindness, I try to tell my children, is strength. My child with the kind disposition is frequently baffled and let down by the hostility of others, at which point I have to bite my tongue. “Jessica was a dick to you because she has vast inadequacies; and honestly, have you seen the state of her parents?” is not ammunition I’m going to give to my seven-year-old. On the other hand, it seems fair to provide her with a rudimentary knowledge of how projection and insecurity work. Frequently, these lessons go against the grain of how our culture measures success, and it’s a hard line to navigate; you can be competitive and resolute, and not a “pushover” or a “weakling”, but still factor in how other people feel.

Can you teach someone to be kind? Of course, but also only sort of, not entirely. You can condition them with reason and rewards in the same way you can send them to piano every week and eventually they’ll learn to play Twinkle Twinkle. The fact remains that some people are kinder than others not as a result of external forces but from some preloaded ability we’re resistant to valorising. There are branches of therapy that frame acts of kindness as a form of self-care – much more in line with our what’s-in-it-for-me values – and the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop said, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” Two thousand years later, it remains a hard sell.


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