When a friend of mine was four, her grandmother had a foreign teacher staying with her. Her name was Ruth. And somehow, my friend got it in her head that it was hilarious to chant, over and over, at the dinner table, “Ruth has a mustache, Ruth has a mustache, Ruth has a mustache!” Whether or not Ruth actually did have a mustache is beside the point; she probably rocked a few extra hairs on her upper lip. But my friend's grandmother said something she's never forgotten since; something that shut her up and stopped her mid-chant.
“Kid,” grandma said, “Be kind or be quiet.”
All of our kids have done this. “Mama, why is her shirt so ugly?” one kid might ask in Target -- loudly. “I don’t like this soup. It tastes like butt,” one broke out the other day. “Your breath stinks,” one might say to another. And don’t get me started on what’s said on American playgrounds every single day.
“Be kind or be quiet!” I want to shout at everyone some days. But it’s not the sort of thing you can shout. You have to say it, quietly, firmly, with conviction. This phrase will not be screamed or sloganeered. It’s gentle. It’s speaking the truth, not shouting it. It reaches the core of what and who we would be in a society built on kindness and love. Be kind or be quiet. As Tommy Wiseau’s character says in The Disaster Artist, “Keep your comments in your pocket.”
We need to teach our kids to keep their comments in their pockets.
That’s a complicated thing, especially these days, with adults shouting vitriol over their heads -- about children themselves, even. We have to teach our kids, first, to walk in someone else’s shoes. To see the word from someone else’s eyes.
That means pointing out situations in which people feel emotions, saying, “Oh, she must be sad that you took her ball,” or “He must feel angry that you called him that name.”
It means reaching the feeling behind the action. “That old man on the bench? He must be tired.” It means all the hard work of empathy we do every day: the volunteerism. The way we give money to panhandlers, even though the city tells us not to. The way we smile at others, the way we compliment strangers and see the good in them.
Only once our kids have that empathy, or begin to have it, can we teach them to be kind or be quiet.
That means staying silent when another kid muffs a word during reading. It means keeping council when their brother dresses himself and looks like a walking color clash. It means, also, asking adults around them to rise to the same occasion.
It means teaching the pause.
The pause happens when you want to use mean language. In that pause, you ask, “Is this necessary?” and “Is this kind?” If the answers to both is no, you keep your mouth shut. Easy-peasy. Simple as pie. In theory, at least. But we all fail at it. We fail from impatience, from the need to feel superior. From nativism and fear and greed. We fail.
We need to teach our kids to do better: to be silent until the mood passes. To, in that pause, think about how their words might affect the feelings of someone else, present or not (because it’s just as unkind to talk about people who aren’t present as it is to talk about people who are).
We need to spread kindness, not vitriol or meanness. Kurt Vonnegut, in the novel God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, says, “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth … there’s one thing I know of. Dammit, babies, you’ve got to be kind.”
You’ve got to be kind, babies.
Or you’ve got to be quiet.