Head of School Monthly Message – The Importance of Kindness

August 30, 2018 – There are many important topics that circulate in the field of education with regard to the “best way” to educate children as well as the central issues that surround the growth and well-being of those children we educate. To that end, I find myself contemplating the difficulty our children are dealing with in having many obstacles in their path that could impede this growth and well-being. Sadly, I have found that due to these obstacles, children don’t always make the best choices. We see behaviors that emerge that tend to be focused solely on themselves, and what gets lost, time and again, is kindness.

Recently, I read an article by Rabbi Gil Perl, Head of School at Margolin Hebrew Academy who was detailing one of his many experiences at an AVI Chai sponsored Jewish Day School leaders Institute at Harvard University. In this article, Rabbi Perl focused specifically on the following question that was being discussed in one session at the institute. The question asked, “What are the most significant impediments in today’s society to the moral development of our children?” Harvard Professor Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist who teaches at Harvard’s Graduation School of Education, was leading the discussion. Dr Weissbourd’s current work focuses primarily on this very topic. He concluded that, “more dangerous to our children than TV, video games, or the internet is today’s unprecedented focus on the achievement and happiness of our children.” I can say with certainty, that if you were to poll any group of educators from the east coast to the west coast, most, if not all, would concur. This of course, does not mean that parents shouldn’t want their children to succeed and be happy. The difficulty begins when it becomes the singular, primary focus of schools and parents.

Dr. Weissbourd’s research revealed the inordinate amount of time and energy that parents and schools have been spending over the past twenty or so years to make sure that children feel good compared to the rather small amount of time spent teaching children how to make others feel good. Weissbourd’s research argues that parents try to make the connection that, “if our children feel good, they will act good; if we build them up to ensure their happiness, everything else will fall into place.” However, what has consistently been the case is that feeling good does not ensure acting good and that building up a child’s happiness at any cost does not ensure everything else will “fall into place.” Perl reflects that during the session at Harvard, Weissbourd asked the group to compare the number of times the educators in the room have heard parents say of their children, “All I want is that they should be happy” with the number of times they heard parents say, “All I want is that they should be kind.”

One of the more compelling parts of the article is when Perl speaks to the fact that there is no research to support the notion that people who feel good about themselves tend to do more good for others or that those with poor self -image act poorly towards others. To illustrate his point, Weissbourd spoke about the exposed failed research that once indicated that bullying was a result of low self-esteem in certain people and that in order to compensate for this or mask one’s weaknesses, the bully would act cruel, mean, harsh, etc. In other words, there is no substantiated research to support any corollary between bullying and low self -esteem. Instead, as Weissbourd contends, “bullies lack empathy, and empathy doesn’t come from telling kids that we just want them to be happy. It comes from telling them that we just want them to be kind.”

Certainly, happiness in children is very important and Weissbourd certainly agrees. He contends that though there can be a connection between being happy and being good, it is not always manifested through treating others well. Weissbourd ended the session with the following statement which brought everything full circle for me. He said, “Empathy, kindness, and taking an interest in the welfare of others, after all, are the necessary ingredients for building successful relationships. And it is in meaningful, deep, and successful relationships that true happiness is found.”

Rabbi after Rabbi tells us that Torah is all about relationships: our individual relationship with God, our relationship to the Jewish people, and our relationship to mankind. It is also important to remind ourselves that Torah’s narrative is focused around the idea of covenant – “a sacred relationship in which two parties agree to care for each other.” As Rabbi Perl so eloquently said, “So if happiness is to be found in caring relationships, and caring relationships are the foundation of Torah, I now have a more profound understanding of the pasuk in Mishlei which we say each and every time we put the Torah away: Deracheha darchei noam vi-chol netivoteha shalom,”  “The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and its paths are paths of peace.”  The Torah demands of us that we be good.  And if and when we are, we’ll come to appreciate what pleasantness, happiness, kindness and peace of mind truly are.”

In our school culture at Pardes, we hold kindness with the highest regard. This coming school year, let us make this one of our most important Mitzvot. We must not allow ourselves to be casual or informal with our relationships as they are the cornerstones of all that we do at Pardes. Instead, let us be purposeful in how we treat each other, how we take care of each other, and how we communicate with each other.