Monday, May 9, 2011

Kindness Pays

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. Peace was restored.

By the time the novelty wore off after a few weeks, they had broken their habit. 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. (I’m a little slower in seeing the humor.) 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.

Are you in a rut of negative interaction with someone? What would happen if you started being kind? I told the story last month of the Weissers, who overcame hateful attacks by kindly offering to help their attacker. That is an extreme example, but perhaps you can think of someone who rubs you the wrong way, someone who might respond to a kind gesture. Even if the other person does not respond, you might feel better. Give it a try and see what happens.


  1. It is so hard to fake kindness - at least for me. So I really respect someone who's able to do it. It's interesting to see how it changed Grace and Mia's relationship. Obviously it does work. I think I needed to read this today. Thank you.

  2. Not feeling the love, Galen. I am trying but keep getting defeated by life right now. At CVS, trying to get calcium for Sam (see blog for details), I was told the pills were not for kids...fine, but what else is there? The pharmacist looked at me with distain and told me most kids don't need it because they drink milk and I should try it. You can imagine my response...given that my son does drink milk and gets more than his daily allowance of calcium already...could not for the life of me find a way to be positive to this man...sorry :(

  3. Galen: What if I am already nice? Do I lose my dollar? I really do await your philosophical response. I find the subject fascinating.

  4. Chrissy--I think the reason it worked for Grace and Mia was that it simply broke their pattern. I have found in my own life that sometimes I've been able to change someone's negative attitude with a smile or a kind word.

    JackSamMum--Perhaps after you beat the c--p out of this insensitive person, you could smile sweetly and say, "Have a nice day." I'm joking, but I'm not making light of your experience. I'm sorry that happened to you. Don't worry about whether you were kind to him. Be kind to yourself.

    JJ--No, you won't lose your dollar for already being nice. This wisdom was born out of the philosophy of desperation. I'm glad you find the willingness of an exasperated parent to pay for good behavior fascinating! Your comments always bring a smile!

  5. Hello Galen,
    I'm a very pragmatic kind of guy and I say whatever works to initiate behavioral change. Kindness isn't my strong suit but here is a quote that helps me get it - "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle". Goethe


  6. Maybe because I have been so KIND over my lifetime is why I have no money? My motto should be kindness leaves one broke!

    I would play a game with my sister, I would just listen and she attempt constant control - her attacks have continued for low these 60 years. Finally when she turned me over to Adult Protective Services and made felony charges - I hired a lawyer for her to talk to and I no longer listened to her. It was expensive but kind.

    I think the secret in your story is that both girls had a lovely parent who was willing to help them figure IT out...not making the situation a larger competition for you affection and attention.

    Thank you for sharing

  7. Riley--Thank you for sharing that quote. We really don't know what someone else is going through. It's helpful to remember that.

    Patricia--Your last few comments suggest that you are going through a difficult time, or that you have in the past. It sounds like you believe that people have taken advantage of you because of your kindness. It is hard sometimes to distinguish between kindness and good boundaries. I know I've had trouble with that in the past. I appreciate your sharing your perspective.

  8. I guess my reply was too are very perceptive Galen...I was abused by a sibling most of my life and I have had very poor boundaries for a long time as a result.

    I absorb peoples emotions all the time...and am working with someone now to learn how to control this energy problem.

    Teaching Emotional IQ was a very great teacher for me...we often teach what we need to learn!

  9. Hmmm...very good idea of making friends out of two young fighting-cocks…I’m seeing now that there’s just a lack of motivation of 2 people that don’t get along…I didn’t see it this way before. If I ever have kids in the future who don’t get along very well, I’ll know what to do.;) Thanks for sharing.


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