A kind thought that has rippled out into an award-winning movement of kindness through the Co Meath village of Ratoath all started with one little girl in a creche on the main street nearly three years ago.
Fiadh Leneghan, then aged four, had just heard the book The Story of the Kindness Elves by Anna Ranson and Benjamin Byrne read out loud at her preschool Happy Days when she had the idea that she would turn into a kindness elf and bring joy into people’s lives like they did.
The idea spread among her friends in the classroom and any child spotted helping anybody else had their picture hung on a "kindness tree", says the manager, Eilish Balfe.
Then the staff started giving the children “secret missions” of kindness to bring home. Parents were asked to look out for them and to text staff if they identified a kind deed that had been done for them or for siblings.
From there, “it just kept growing and growing”, Balfe says. Happy Days reached out to the community through a social media outlet, the Ratoath Noticeboard, asking people to send in emails about kindness they had experienced locally.
“The emails were coming in thick and fast and we used to read the emails in the morning time and we’d give a bunch of balloons to the person who was kind,” she says.
They also began to leave chocolates on counters for particularly helpful shopkeepers with an anonymous calling card from “the kindness elves”, which left people wondering who they were. It was on the eve of Storm Emma, dubbed the “Beast from the East”, at the end of February 2018, that the elves revealed their identity, urging neighbours to look out for each other over the coming days of heavy snowfalls and freezing temperatures.
The children also learned through weekly outings to help with the local Tidy Towns effort about reciprocal kindness. It was noticed they just had plastic gloves to pick up litter, so the credit union equipped them with pickers and Ratoath Noticeboard bought them proper gloves.
Their continued clean-ups through the pandemic earned them a local community Covid hero award and then the entire Happy Days kindness project was recognised with the Inspired Practice Award in Early Childhood Ireland’s 2020 awards, which were announced at the end of November.
While “thrilled” to get this external accolade, Balfe makes it clear that the children and the staff at this preschool in the community centre have reaped plenty of rewards within. “I have very little behaviour problems in my class because they just want to be kind,” she says. “They just want their picture in the kindness tree.”
We all have the capacity to be kind but kindness is nurtured through ongoing practise, says psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, author of the 15-Minute Parenting series of books. "If you want to be kind, you practise kind acts and do it regularly. You celebrate and find joy in the small things."
Early childhood is very egocentric, when a parent is likely to hear “mine” a lot. For a toddler, she says: “It’s very much about me, my place in the world. I have to go through a process of discovering I am not actually the world, I am within the world.”
Stage two of developmental play, which typically starts at around age 3½ to four years when a child has two toys talking to each other, is really important for cultivating empathy and kindness, as well as for learning critical thinking and problem-solving.
“In that type of play they have to consider a situation, typically a social scenario that is familiar to them, such as sharing toys. They have to consider the situation from two perspectives at once, which means they have to project into the other person’s point of view – how they think and feel,” says Fortune.
“It’s not like they nail it at that age,” she says, but they do start to develop a capacity for kindness that can be encouraged by the adults around them. Even at that young age they can experience the psycho-social benefits of helping others.
“We feel a better sense of belonging, connection, community and pride in ourselves – so generally it makes people feel healthier, happier, more successful, [with] a higher level of energy,” says Fortune. “That is why it should be a lifelong practice because there are mental health benefits to the practice of kindness.”
It’s more than a “good feeling”: biochemical research has shown that what is known as “helper’s high” is accompanied by strengthening of the body’s immune function and a lower level of stress hormones.
Toddler-like preoccupation with self tends to be seen again in early adolescence, in what Fortune describes as “a second bite of the developmental apple”. For teenagers it’s a case of “I am rediscovering myself and establishing myself and identify in the world”, with a tendency to focus on what they want and need, rather than considering others. “For some people that is a lifelong thing,” says Fortune.
Positive psychologist Jolanta Burke, an associate professor at Maynooth University's department of education, says that while some of us have a predisposition towards kindness, it can also be learned. Children will be more inclined to show kindness if they see their parents and other people around them doing it.
“When children are naturally oriented towards others, it is easier for them to build relationships, perform acts of kindness and they also display more childhood resilience.”
Showing kindness takes courage, says Fortune, as it carries the risk of rejection and of being hurt if it is not appreciated or reciprocated. “Being kind is often dismissed as being soft, when it needs to be seen as a strength of character. In fact, we tend to see it is strong and resilient people who can put themselves emotionally out there like that.”
Burke says that although adults are encouraged through the media to “treat” ourselves when we feel bad, be it through shopping, a favourite beverage or going to a spa, “research shows that kindness towards others is a more powerful tool for boosting our wellbeing than self-indulgence. This is why teaching children kindness can serve as a valuable skill that will help them successfully navigate through life challenges and ultimately feel happier.”
It’s a skill that has never been needed more than during this pandemic and she believes that we are kinder to each other now than we were a year ago. “Covid has reminded us of people suffering and common humanity. It has brought us as a society closer together, which is the usual turn of events during difficult times.”
Meanwhile, this month the Gaelscoil Mhichíl Uí Choileáin in Clonakilty, Co Cork, is upholding its tradition in recent years of running a “joyful December”. Instead of written homework, the 350 pupils are encouraged to carry out acts of kindness after school.
Vice-principal Íde Ní Mhuirí says it started a few years ago with a focus on gratitude in the run-up to Christmas, encouraging pupils to look around at all they had in their lives rather than succumbing to the seasonal-driven “I want, I want, I need”. The following year the emphasis shifted to sharing and then kindness.
The ethos behind this has “definitely” had an impact on the school community far beyond December, she says. Throughout the year, staff also nominate a “cara cneasta” (kind friend) every week for an award. “We’re very lucky that we have very, very few discipline problems. I don’t know if it’s directly related to it but they think twice now and put themselves in other people’s shoes.”
Last December, the children kept kindness diaries for the month to record what they were doing for others at home and in the community. Covid restrictions mean they can’t bring in things from home, so instead they have a kindness calendar that they bring home on Monday.
There’s a different theme each day of the week for kindness acts: their family, the environment, older people and themselves. Kindness-to-self is included, she explains, “because there is so much pressure on children these days to be something they are not”.
Each child fills in their calendar at home, parents sign it and then they send in a photograph of it to the school on Thursday evening for a class discussion the following day – through the Seesaw app for the younger children and Microsoft Teams platform for the older ones. “There is a bit of feedback so that we know that they are doing it and taking it seriously and that they also get to talk about what they did,” says Ní Mhuirí.
The children were asked for suggestions of things that could be done in keeping with Covid-19 restrictions and they came up with great ideas, she says, such as planting bulbs and leaving them at the door of an older person or sending videos or making window visits. “It shows how much they have adapted.”
Parents too have embraced the project as they see how the positive effects ripple out into the household. The break from formal homework, she adds, also gives families the chance to enjoy more time together.
Christine Scanlon, Fiadh’s mother, can hardly remember sowing the seed that led to the Happy Days award because, after all, it was nearly half her lifetime ago. But, the second oldest of four children, she continues to be a kind-natured, confident child, “well able to communicate and get her point across – quite headstrong, determined”.
Balfe, a Montessori educator by training, says they changed how they operated in the preschool after she did a course on the emotional wellbeing of the child. “When parents come in to me and to see the preschool and ask me what do I teach children, I say, ‘I teach them to be kind.’ We built the foundation of our curriculum around kindness and it is working really, really well for us.”
Back in March, the pandemic stopped the children’s weekly visits to the local nursing home where, as Balfe says, “my four year old teaches a 94-year-old about dinosaurs and Paws Patrol”. But every Monday the children send residents a recorded message, letter or song.
It’s the little things – with little people leading the way.
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