On “kindness” and “niceness” and justice and kids…

I’m taking a deep breath as I type this.  I’m nervous to say these things out loud.

But it is 2016, and we have elected Donald Trump to the highest office in the land, despite his willingness to incite violence, risk our country’s safety, disrespect women and minorities, and put the most fragile Americans in danger.  As a Jew, a woman, a mother and an artist, I’m terrified. As a human, I’m aghast at what my fellow Americans have chosen (and what the rest of us have allowed, by not fighting harder).

It is also Thanksgiving today, and out in the west, the Standing Rock Sioux (joined by many others) are fighting on behalf of clean water, the earth, their culture, and ALL of us. We are not supporting them. We are turning a blind eye, as we uncomfortably snap pictures of our kids in paper feathers, as we roast apocryphal turkeys.

And then there is the water in Flint, Michigan, which is still undrinkable. The young black men (and women) gunned down in our streets, who so often go nameless. The dire situation in our public schools.  The lives lost daily in Syria. Etc. Etc. In short, this world is a mess, an utter disaster.  This is not new, but 2016 feels… like a moment.

A few years ago, a book came out, called Wonder.  Maybe you’ve heard of it? People loved this book, embraced this book. It was a book that showcased how radical empathy might alter lives. Wonder has become an important book for schools, for educating kids about kindness.  The book advocated that we all “Choose Kind.”  This was a good thing.  We were all proud of ourselves, of children’s literature, and the power it can wield.

But in the years since, I think something insidious has begun to happen. The “Choose Kind” message seems to have shifted.  More and more , I see people suggesting that we “Choose Kind” by avoiding uncomfortable situations.  It has been suggested to me  that “Choosing Kind” is in opposition to the “Call Out Culture.”  In fact, some people are not “Choosing Kind” so much as they are “Choosing Nice.”


We do not “Choose Kind” by not making the homophobe or the racist feel “weird.”  By not holding the bully accountable.

KINDNESS and NICENESS are not the same thing. Kindness is not etiquette.  Kindness is not an avoidance of discomfort.  Kindness is a deep, true generosity of spirit. Kindness looks at the world, or a classroom, or a birthday party, and says, “Who is hurting most of all in this space, and how can I use my relative power and privilege to help them?”

We can Choose Kind and be radicals. We can Choose Kind by hurting feelings.  I know this feels confusing, in the moment when it happens.   But I believe this, I really do.  Sometimes, Choosing Kind means that YOU have to be the one who ruffles feathers.

I sat this week at NCTE, listening to a panel on censorship, and thought about the role everyone plays in our communities. A few hours earlier, at a signing, I’d been speaking about Trump to a likeminded teacher, and then glanced back at my signing line, to notice a woman frowning at me. I could feel her criticism. I could feel that this particular teacher was not in agreement with me, but that she knew she was in a minority. I imagined her thinking, “Politics has no role in this place. Children’s books should not be political.”

And in that moment, I could feel myself altering my own tone, shifting my attitude, for her.  I did not want to make her feel isolated, alone in her politics. Not here, in this room full of liberal teachers.  I felt bad for her, even as I disagreed with her completely.  I signed her book silently, tried to smile, and she left.

Then I felt dirty inside.

This is often the hard moment, for me. The moment when being “nice” to an individual contradicts everything else I know and believe.  I am being “nice” to someone, but for all I know, this woman worked to shut down her school’s LGBTQ club. For all I know, she approves of a Muslim registry.  In theory, I am furious at this woman.  But I don’t really want to make her cry. Not in person, at a conference.

And yet–maybe that was a mistake. Maybe there was a conversation she was ready to have. Maybe there, at NCTE, she was rethinking things, struggling, and I missed my opportunity.

I guess I don’t really have helpful advice for anyone, around this topic.  But it has been swirling in my head nonstop, and today, Thanksgiving,  felt like the right day to say it aloud.  I think we all need to think about what we mean when we say “Choose Kind.”  I think there are moments when we politely agree to disagree. But I also think we’re in an important moment in history. I think that while I believe deeply in kindness, I’m beyond niceness right now. I’m beyond etiquette. I’m ready for justice. I’m ready to Choose Just.

Occasionally, someone will suggest to me that we, the children’s authors, should stay out of politics.  As though, because we write for kids, we should “keep it light.”  I could not disagree more strongly.

Because we write for kids, we have an obligation to be political. We have an obligation to educate. To empower.  We owe these kids more than bunnies and cookies and easy rhymes. We owe them kindness, always. But we also owe them truth, and justice, and the tools to create their own world.  Hopefully a better one.

5 Responses to “On “kindness” and “niceness” and justice and kids…”

  1. william Turcoote Says:

    ” Then I felt dirty inside ” . I sadly get it .

  2. Ami Says:

    Sometimes it takes a really obvious evil to push people to fight it. The insidious types of evil lull people into complacency. A character in one of Madeleine L’Engle’s books (please don’t ask me which one) muses that she almost wishes we were in the days of Christians being thrown to the lions, just to force people to really choose sides. I have seen more people forego niceness for kindness and truth lately, because they have been given a wake-up call. They can’t pretend hatred and bigotry don’t exist any more. Or maybe it’s just me trying to see a silver lining:)

  3. Sadie Says:

    It’s so self-righteous of you to assume that because someone disagrees with you, that you have been sent to fix them. You felt dirty because you made assumptions about someone and then were polite to them? Good grief.

  4. Lauren Says:

    I am incredulous at how you can speak of hatred and intolerance and bigotry in reference to our President-elect and his supporters, while completely missing the obvious. That you, the left (although not all) are in reality, the bigots, the intolerant and those who hate anyone who does not conform to your twisted view of what is right and wrong. Since when did it become a sane thing to vote for someone just because she is a woman, or because you were black or half-black or a Muslim? (And when did pantsuits become a thing to be applauded?) This ‘woman’ has no credibility or credentials. She is dangerous to this nation and this world. How can you all remain so blind to the reality of the crimes this ‘woman’ has committed? She blatantly set up an unsecured server in her home, secretively, while SOS, for the sole purpose of hiding her money laundering scheme (aka Clinton Foundation). She has taken money from this nation’s self-proclaimed enemies for favors when she was supposed to be keeping this nation safe as SOS. She has accumulated great wealth with this pay for play scheme. She is pushing completely open borders and a continuation of the horrific ‘deals’ this current potus has inflicted upon our nation. What sane person would gift the enemy that calls for Death to America and Death to Israel with billions of dollars and nuclear capability? Answer that, please? WHO of right mind would DO such a thing? In essence, they are paying our enemies to destroy us with nuclear weapons. And your token ‘woman’ wants to open the floodgate borders to let in ISIS and any other terrorists that wants to destroy us. And you are willingly voting for that? And being an activist for THAT? And encouraging others to try to overthrow the President-elect, who actually SEES the reality and the real danger and wants to stop it? He wants to save our lives, not feed us to the wolves, like the crazies you are promoting. Honestly, the insanity just keeps ramping up. I could go on and on for days with documentation and citing instances of how they have put us at great risk. You are putting your family in great danger by being so blind. Liberalism has become a mental disorder. Democracy has morphed into insanity and near communism.

  5. Prof. Karel Rose Says:

    Dear Laurel,
    I teach children’s and adolescent literature at Brooklyn College but I also teach Philosophy and Women’s Studies. I believe that they are all of one piece. It is not possible to teach literature or philosophy or women’s studies without recognizing that morality, social justice and human rights are now being corrupting. Thank you for getting it out there. April Bedford shared this wonderful piece with my students. I will share it with my friends. Karel Rose

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