“Careful the things you say, children will listen. Careful the things you do, children will see and learn.” So says Stephen Sondheim in the beginning the song “Children Will Listen.”
Sometimes people forget that children are little sponges who soak it all up and they notice everything that we do. In light of everything going on in the news right now, is is especially important to show our children through our actions and deeds how to be kind to others. Showing your children kindness and being kind to others is an important first step, but sometimes it is also important to reinforce those ideas through books. Fortunately there are a wealth of them that help children see the value of being kind to others.
For the simplest stories and the youngest of readers, the best books are soothing and lighthearted. Books such as “Good People Everywhere,” “Because Amelia Smiled,” and “Stick and Stone” can warm children up to the concept very early on.
“Good People Everywhere” is a soothing book that shows how we are all interconnected. Small deeds that people do everyday reverberate with their impact. When it comes to trying to encourage children to be kinder to those around them and to their world, this is a beautiful place to start. From the mother cooking for her child, the teacher explaining a math problem, a farmer growing food, or the driver getting it to the market. We touch other people with the deeds that we do. We can also help a friend who skinned their knee or help rebuild a home damaged by a storm, it all begins with simple acts that bring us together.
Anyone familiar with Laura Numeroff’s “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie…” series is well versed in the notion that every action produces another counter-reaction. In the beautifully illustrated “Because Amelia Smiled,” because one little girl smiled while she was walking down the street, Mrs. Higgens also smiled. The little girl made Mrs. Higgens think about her grandson in Mexico and she decided to bake him some cookies. Her grandson shared his cookies with others and the smile continued to spread. Through a sweet story and beautiful illustrations, this book shows that positive outlooks and kind deeds spread joy.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but in the book “Stick and Stone” they actually stand up for each other. When Pinecone tries to use words to hurt them, the two lonely figures learn that standing up for a friend is the best thing you can do to counter-balance a bully. It’s a comical take on the old rhyme that we all grew up hearing and perhaps better than ignoring the taunt, shows kids to stand up for others, even if they are not your friend to start with, you may make a friend in the end. As stick tells stone, “You rock.” And stone replies, “That’s just what stones do. Best friendship rocks too.”
For slightly longer stories, and children willing to listen a little more, “Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed” and “Someone Loves You, Mr. Hatch,” are both books that shine a light on how being kind makes such a huge difference for people. “Chrysanthemum” is a long-time favorite and “The Invisible Boy” shows one perspective of what it feels like when others are unkind.
In “Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed,” a chain reaction similar to the one that happened in “Because Amelia Smiled,” starts because a little girl gives her neighbor some freshly picked blueberries. From there, it isn’t just a matter of being kind, but actually paying forward the good deed by doing something else for another stranger – baking muffins, helping someone with heavy bags and even helping the homeless. What looks like an ordinary deed to you might make an extraordinary difference to someone else.
In “Someone Loves You, Mr. Hatch,” children see a man go from being lonely and depressed to sharing joy with those around him because he had received a valentine. When it turns out the valentine was a mistaken gift, it crushes him so much that he goes back to his old ways. But the neighborhood was used to the happiness and love that he had spread that they go out of their way to find a way make sure that he knows that many people truly love him. A touching book that shows the impact of positive thoughts and actions.
I will admit that I am biased when it comes to “Chrystanthemum.” I love just about anything by Kevin Henkes and this is one of my favorites. The main concept of this story is how mean words can make us wilt, but kind words can make us bloom (similar notion to filling a bucket). When a few girls at school ridicule Chrysanthemum because she has a long name and was named after a flower, it is her teacher who they all love who comes to her rescue. Mean words hurt, no matter how much we try to ignore them. The best medicine is to help those being mean to stop.
In “The Invisible Boy” we are looking a little more closely at what it feels like when people are not kind. Children often only consider their own feelings in a given situation, but it is much more challenging to see the world from someone else’s perspective. Whether it be a child acting out in class because he desperately wants friends or allowing himself to become invisible so that no one will make fun of him. In this book, poor Brian feels like he is invisible – no one picks him to be on their team, he isn’t invited to parties, and he is simply lonely. Amazingly, his invisibility is highlighted in the book by having him be a pencil drawing in a world of vivid color and ink. When he made a new student feel welcomed instead of laughing at his differences, the new kid in turn helped Brian be less invisible and more included. This is a great way to open discussions about challenging topics, like which is worse, being laughed at or being invisible? A remarkable book for elementary school kids.
Once children get the notion of being kind, the goal is to set them out there to try new good deeds. Whether through the awesome story of Mrs. Ruler’s class or through Bernadette Russell’s idea for chronicling your good deeds in some way, there are a lot of great ideas floating out there to get more children spreading kindness.
The back of the book “Kindness is Cooler, Mrs. Ruler” says it all – “When Mrs. Ruler asks five of her kindergarteners to miss recess, she’s got a special plan up her sleeve. She’s about to teach a new golden rule: KINDNESS IS COOL! From clearing the table after dinner, to helping the elderly, one kindergarten class is proving that kids really can make a difference.” The five students had been acting up in class, and rather than being mean to each other, she wanted them to each go home and do 5 acts of kindness towards their families. When one little boy asks “What if I don’t want to be kind?” she responds that “good deeds fill needs.”
The kids learn that each kind act leads to more. They move from just being kind at home to being kind in school. When that one little boy still doesn’t fully buy in to the concept, his classmates intervene and help him see the benefits. By the end of the book, the children have done 100 fabulous and fabulously simple acts of kindness at home, school and throughout their community. A great way to show kids that being kind doesn’t mean anything outrageous, it can mean simply setting the table without being asked.
Bernadette Russell created two books that showcase good deeds – “Do Nice. Be Kind. Spread Happy,” and “Be the Change. Make it Happen.” In these books, Russell encourages children to be special agents of kindness and change. Each book offers over 80 ideas of good deeds towards others and the planet. Whether sending a hug through the mail, passing on a favorite book to a stranger, or organizing a clothing drive, these are amazing ways to get children involved in the act of being kind. A seemingly small act to us, like sitting and talking with someone in a retirement home, makes a big impact to the other person. These books are full of lessons we could all learn from.
So now let your children learn from you, and perhaps we can learn from them, to make this world a better place.