It might be surprising to read that you can learn a lot about kindness by spending time with a child with social skill delays and behavioral issues
. In some ways it is perhaps like looking at the negative of a photograph (back in the day when photographs had negatives). Before having a child with special needs I had never spent a lot of time thinking about how to be kind to people. As a child there were only a couple of instances I can remember (not counting rivalries with my older brother) when I was deliberately unkind to another child; and most of those were self-defense related events. I'm not claiming that I have a lot of skill in this arena - I've always been a bit of a loner, but when I do interact with people I am generally accommodating and thoughtful. Learning to specifically teach social skills to a child, however, has highlighted so many fine points of human interaction that I hadn't really thought about before.
For example, my daughter is engrossed by the idea of birthdays. I may have mentioned that this is one of her favorite pretend play scripts. I've had several "birthdays" this year, and we must always have special pretend food, the birthday song, and lately also birthday crowns. Although she clearly enjoys birthdays, there are some finer social points that we've had to explain in great detail. I've listed some of these below.
- When it is her turn - When she was younger we wrote a social story about birthdays explaining that she only gets one each year, but that it is still fun to help friends celebrate.
- Choosing the gift - that it should be something the birthday person will like, and that she will not get a gift every time we give one to someone else.
- Not being the center of attention - letting the birthday person choose how to celebrate, open gifts, blow out candles, be sung to, etc.
- Social niceties during the party - saying please/thank you, sharing, taking turns, saying goodbye to the host(ess).
Although these all seem obvious to a normative brain, spelling them out and explaining them to a child that struggles to make sense of it all reinforces the importance to me. Kindness is taking joy in celebrating with others, considering what others need or want, focusing on others, and being polite to a fault.
The other piece of kindness that having a special needs child highlights is how unique we all are, and how each of us deserves some level of individualized care
. The best example of this that I can share here is the contrast in interactions between my daughter and two of her friends. My daughter and one of her friends were riding their bikes around on our patio and he was having some trouble navigating some of the turns and obstacles. Because she was following him she would have to stop while he worked his way around the tree branch or the bump in the sidewalk, and when she tried to start again she would "grunt" a little at the effort of moving the pedals on her bike from a dead stop. He interpreted this "grunting" as yelling at him and became quite upset. She, of course, did not undertand why he was upset and continued to grunt and yell until we had to end the play time. The other boy can give as good as he gets in this regard - I have watched my daughter and this boy argue back and forth about whether or not bugs can talk, and if she gets loud he does, too. Unfazed. My point is that the subtlety of needing to treat one friend with more sensitivity than the other goes so far beyond my daughter's skill, and yet it has been a lesson to me
. Am I sensitive to what other's need, or do I proceed with a cookie-cutter approach to friendship. One friend needs phone calls, the other hates phone calls but loves facebook. Am I flexible enough to work at meeting those needs rather than expecting them to bend to mine?
Kindness is other-focused, other-driven, and not mass-produced. I close again with a children's song that I learned when my daughter was just a baby. As I watch her garden grow I tend my own a little more closely.
Kind hearts are the gardens.
Kind thoughts are the roots.
Kind words are are the flowers.
Kind deeds are the fruits.
Take care of your garden,
And keep out the weeds.
Fill it up with sunshine,
Kind words, and kind deeds.