Can Kindness & Empathy Be Reduced to a Checklist?


This week has been a tough week, with another school shooting making headlines I have felt heavier than usual wondering if we are making time for what really matters in school. It’s not just the increase in school shootings (that is another topic in itself) that have me feeling weighed down,  this week alone I have seen two examples that have left me wondering about the ways in which we are trying, no doubt with the best of intentions, to teach students about empathy and kindness in schools.

Here are two recent examples that caught my attention and really caused me to question our collective approaches:

Great Kindness Challenge: My two elementary aged boys participated in a weeklong kindness challenge at school.  For one week, they had conversations about kindness, there was a Kindness assembly and kids were asked to participate in a Kindness Challenge outlining in a checklist format activities they could do to be kind to others.  Our world needs more kindness, but even my first and third grader could see the inauthenticity of this week. If you visit the Kindness Challenge website, they advertise the week as follows:  One week. One Checklist. Infinite Happiness.  Can kindness really be reduced down to one week with a checklist? Does focusing on kindness for one week send the message that it’s not important the rest of the school year?

Just Don’t Say No Rule:  This week while traveling for work, I had the news on in the hotel room something I rarely do at home and heard the story about the “Just Don’t Say No Rule” at Kainesville School in Utah.  Again with the best of intentions, school leaders decided to implement a rule that 6th-grade girls aren’t allowed to say, “No” if they are asked to go to the dance or once at the dance they aren’t allowed to say, “No” if a boy asks them to dance. Thankfully the school has ended this rule.  The rule was meant to be inclusive, yet it was teaching students that being kind to others means putting yourself in potentially uncomfortable situations.   This is an especially problematic example, given where we are as a society with sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement.  But, what does it say about our own understanding or lack thereof on how to teach kindness to our students?

Both of these examples have left me wondering about the culture of kindness in schools.  How do we build an authentically kind culture?  There are many programs in place at school - programs like Character Counts & Project Cornerstone - but are they effective? How do we know? How do schools, parents and the community come together to create a culture of kindness?  More questions, than answers.  

How are you building an authentically kind culture at your school?  I’d love to learn from you and hear some real examples that don’t reduce empathy or kindness down to a checklist.