Monday, March 15, 2010

Kindness Pays (Teaching Kindness 2)

When Mia was in middle school, my foster daughter Grace joined the family. Grace got along with the boys, but she and Mia enjoyed only a brief honeymoon period before the fur started flying. Over time, their animosity became so entrenched that their attacks were automatic. They seemed incapable of seeing, let alone respecting, the other person’s perspective. Each saw herself as the victim of the other, on the receiving end of unwarranted meanness, self-righteous in retaliation.

I did everything I knew to do. We processed ourselves silly, went to counseling, discussed to exhaustion. Consequences were shrugged off.

I kept them separated as much as possible, knowing that if they entered the same space, it would only be seconds before the air ignited with hostility. Finally, I realized that getting them to really understand the situation was a futile endeavor. Each was dug in too deeply. I decided I didn’t really care anymore if they “got it.” I needed the behavior to change, regardless of their understanding.

So I sat them down at the table and made a proposal based on the only thing I thought might motivate them–money. I promised to pay each of them $1 a day to get along. They had to be affirmatively nice to each other–ignoring each other was not enough. Only I got to decide at the end of the day if they earned the money. And either they both earned it or neither did. They would make money or not as a team. Grace observed that this idea might cost me a lot of money. I thought to myself it would be a bargain at twice the price.

It was a bargain indeed. The next day was a pleasure. They said please and thank you to each other. They offered to help each other with chores. They complimented each other. They were totally insincere, you understand. I didn’t care. But over time I saw that they changed at a deeper level. Breaking the cycle gave them room to breathe. Their defenses relaxed. Being kind, even if it was to get money, felt good. It felt good to the person being kind, and it felt good to the recipient of the kindness. They began to form new behavior habits. And after awhile I didn’t need to pay them anymore.

Today Mia and Grace are good friends, even sisters. They laugh at all the things they said and did to each other. They apologize and forgive. The wisdom of the slogan “Fake it till you make it” is proven again. Fake kindness leads to genuine kindness. And genuine kindness leads to our happy place.

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