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A biological need for kindness

Thank you Jane Brody. I always read your weekly “Personal Health” column in the New York Times. You are masterful at choosing topics that speak to me.

This week’s message was particularly powerful. You wrote about “nurturing kindness.” You referenced a pool of experts whose research found that “doing kind things makes you feel better.“ One of those experts, Andrew Miles, a sociologist at the University of Toronto, said, “it fills a basic psychological need like giving our bodies appropriate food. It helps you feel like your life is valuable.”

We probably don’t need research to tell us that. But then again, in these divisive and back-biting times, maybe we do. “The need for kindness may never have been greater.” Thank you for being so clear-eyed on this subject, Jane. Well done.

My husband and I have three children and either 5, 6 or 7 grandchildren/step-grandchildren, depending on who is doing the counting and the level of engagement or disengagement in play at any given time. Ours was a family construct that “blended” when the children were all preteens. Today our “kids” are accomplished middle-aged adults. Kind? Not always. But then, neither am I.

We did our parenting-best over the years, but in reflection, I don’t believe we modeled and nurtured kindness enough. The Brody article references “Social Justice Parenting” by Traci Baxley, an associate professor of education at Florida Atlantic University. The book suggests practical ways to have productive conversations about kindness. It seems to start with attentive listening. The specific advice is this: Rather than hearing a stated problem and trying to “fix’ it — just absorb its meaning to the child.

The author also reminds me that “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” And the importance of follow-up actions. The example is: “If your child asks why a homeless person is so dirty, explain that the person has no home and no bathroom” in which to clean up. Our youngest grandson asked me that very question a few years ago — and later went with me to deliver personal hygiene items to a local shelter program.

It’s the same grandson, now in the third grade, who was recently given an assignment to write a one-page paper titled “Wanted: A Good Friend.” Jordan wrote, “I want a friend who loves football. I need a friend that is caring for others. I want a friend who is kind.”

Jordan did colorful artwork at the bottom of the page depicting two stick figures, one with tear drops floating around his head, clearly crying, with the word “sniff” written nearby. The taller stick person was offering up a heart-shaped balloon to the smaller stick person and saying, “Here you go, no worries.”

I hope I’m getting a framed copy of that kindness-filled essay for Christmas. I will mount it on the wall next to my computer and glance at it every time I need a little nurturing.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at sharjon99@gmail.com.