The kindness imperative

Mental Health in an unequal world – the kindness imperative.

A Little More than Kin – and Less than kind.

In this World Mental Health day edition, I’m taking kindness as my theme – linking to the theme chosen by the World Mental health Federation: “Mental Health in an Unequal World.” As we emerge from over a year of ‘social distancing’, mask wearing from the pandemic, political polarisation, climate inequity, and step forward into a not-yet-so-brave world of serial shortages, price rises, violence against women, shaken trust in authority, and further change and challenge, we have choices to make about how we consciously go forward. As individuals, as families, as societies and as a global community.

As parents and teachers, we are going to have a profound impact in coming out of ‘social distance’ and getting back to proximity, connection, cooperation, appropriate trust and optimism. We need to retune our nervous systems from threat and defense- from the habits of mind that come from seeing people as unknown sources of potential threat, and keeping each other at arm’s length.

Some navigational points: this edition is written both for parents and teachers. And is a little bit of a mental health manifesto charting evolutionary psychological, cultural, and relational aspects of kindness and unkindness…

As always the things we can act on are in the coloured boxes…The article starts with homelife which is more directly for parents, but may provide helpful reflective context for teachers – especially the ECTs that signed up earlier this week. Then I look at societal aspects – kindness, inclusivity and unconscious bias, and move into what we can do in our individual leadership both at school and at home and why it matters…

The family, and the school, are microcosms of society and where the future generations learn how to live in relationship and in community.

Every change, every action and interaction we take has the potential to elevate the consciousness, connect, and make better, or dip, disconnect, and worsen.

The foremost researcher on relational resilience and healing trauma, founder of Polyvagal Theory, Dr Stephen Porges says what we now need as we emerge from the pandemic, and the damage of ‘social’ distancing (instead of what always should have been emphasised as physical distancing) is to retune our nervous systems back to safety from the habituation to threat and distancing, into a sense of relationship – common humanity. To be in proximity and find comfort there, to be passionate, compassionate, connected.

Resilience is related to whether you can be welcoming and accessible to others. We regulate to safety in relation to one another – it is called co-regulation. And that comes first in human development. Before we learn to access calm ourselves, we learn to co-regulate. SO those nurturing experiences of being held with kindness in our vulnerability and distress as an infant are crucial to our growth and development, and our balance. And kindness is what it’s going to take in order for us to move forward and create a society and an environment that can heal and become equitable, more sustainable.

The maxim “kindness begins at home” is a sentiment that cuts across culture. And in theory this comes more naturally and easily to us on an evolutionary basis. Many parents seek to instil kindness and reward it from the get-go of a child’s life. And kindness often forms a foundational part of the ethos of many primary schools. So what can go wrong -and what can we do about it?

I often joke that infant amnesia is there for a reason: if our daughter knew everything we did for her in her first few years of life, she would be crippled by gratitude. Such is the bond of kindness between parent and child. All the holding, feeding, nappy changing (three and a half years a slave), cleaning, playing, dandling, nursing, nurturing.

As a species, we have high maintenance young – and this is the price we pay for our relatively massive brains. But it carves out a destiny of prosocial behaviour, connection, inter-relatedness, compassion, collaboration, and kindness. We are far stronger together, than apart.

The feeding of the young by the parent is held up as a benchmark of boundless generosity – in art and iconography. If you take the notion of kindness and altruism in Christian art, I wonder if the number of pictures of Mary nursing Jesus outweighs the images of Jesus on the cross? I reckon it’s a close run thing.

But what about when the milk of human kindness gets in short supply at home? Indeed, over the past 18 months, we have all spent A LOT more time in each other’s company than ever before. We have lacked the ‘pendulation’ of coming together after being apart. This coupled with the stresses, strains, threats, and challenges of the pandemic has for many had phases of short term curdling, and for some long-term sourness and difficulty.

Kindness may begin at home – but so can cruelty, manipulation, exploitation…Recognise any of these? From your own childhood? In your own experience of parenting or teaching? And truth be known, these are all too universal…I reckon my parents would have chalked up a few of these on my scorecard as the eldest of 3 at home…
• Sibling rivalry
• Harsh criticism
• Put-downs and teasing
• Learned helplessness
• Parental conflict
• Polarised family dynamics
• Favouritism
• Parental pressure
• Conditional love
• Disrespect
• Entitlement
• Intolerance
• Provocation
• Disconnection
• Lack of trust
• Withholding affection
• Abusive language
• Explosive behaviour

In medieval mythology, the pelican was held up as the epitome of parental benevolence: rather than let its young starve, it would peck at its breast and allow its children to drink its blood. Shakespeare has his parental figures refer to the sacrifices they make for their children in this vein – at key moments of parental disapproval.

Lear speaks of his ‘Pelican daughters’ in exile, homeless and degraded – his own unkindness, entitlement and conditional love rebounding back on him in that dramatic masterclass of a tragedy mapping out the links between abusive home culture, and societal oppression. John of Gaunt tells Richard the Second that his love is burned out: “That blood already, like the pelican, Hast thou tapped out and drunkenly caroused.”

Over the course of the pandemic, it has not only been relationships between parent couples that have been under strain, it has been a struggle for many parents to contain the anxiety, rage, and rebellion of young people denied and restricted from normality. Or refereeing between siblings between whom there is no longer any love lost. The question is whether we are giving each other a hard time when we are locked in this mode – or whether we are having a hard time.

Many concessions have been made and regretted as part of trying to adapt to the growing pains which have always existed – but in many cases been accelerated by the age we are in. Some parents and siblings have felt bruised and bullied by those who have pushed at the boundaries and forced their own way through a form of individuation process that is extreme, mutinous, high risk.

The home may have been meant to be a haven from contagion, but for many it has been like a battle-ground at the sharp edge of parenting. And I want to extend full-hearted compassion and warmth to those who are weary. You are not alone. I know this through my work with school leaders and in the coaching I do.

There is a whole spectrum to this sort of experience in family life that I have seen in my 25+ years of supporting children and families from one extreme of dispossessed parents in the wreckage of their loving nest, looking at their teenage cuckoo and wondering where their loving child went…through to constant friction…nagging and push-back dynamics…nastiness and bickering unpleasantness…down to a stable position where teens live effectively separate lives of disconnection.   

All of us at some point will experience dischord. It is how we can get back from the brink of disagreement, and heal from the harshness and no-holds-barred aggression and animosity that can emerge tooth and nail in the home…

This begs the question, what is it we can do to restore relationships at home when kindness is in short supply?

  1. Notice it! We can’t change what we can’t see. Make a point of observing and reflecting on the patterns of unkindness at home. Are you seeing STATE unkindness? ie situation-specific events? Or is there a pattern of TRAIT unkindness slipping in to the relationship…whether this is between you and your child, you and your partner,  between your children, or between your child and others…manifesting in the stance your child or teen is taking in their relationships with friends / rivals / groups at school.
  2. What part are you playing – in reaction? In response to it?
  3. What feelings come up for you around moments of unkindness?
  4. Notice and allow your anger (internally). Accept that feeling that we often mark out as being taboo…We feel anger where a boundary is breached. Your anger needs to be like fire in your emotional eco system: a good servant, but a bad master. Use your anger to galvanise a response that is going to have traction towards change. Explosive, judgmental, shaming responses are just going to add to the climate of unkindness. It’s easier to be kind in a culture that is kind. Much harder to be kind in a tough environment.
  5. Look out for what might lie under the hood of anger and irritation. What else is there…there’s often a sadness, a deep despondency, rejection, fear…Anger is often a masking emotion. As the Buddha said, anger ‘has a poisoned root and a honeyed tip’. When we act in anger and reactivity, we often set ourselves up for groundhog day – because the conversations we have, are not really getting at the heart of the matter.
  6. Avoid what Philippa Perry calls the game of ‘fact tennis’ – who did what, said what, and try to put the focus on what is really wanted and needed in the relationship. This means taking ownership of feelings, and being able to listen without judgment – even if there are painful messages to be heard. Develop psychological trust by widening and deepening the pool of understanding, and linked with it, perhaps, empathy.
  7. Where there is damage in a relationship, movement towards meaningful repair is important. But forcing apology, or an inauthentic reparation is not going to work. Encouraging listening to understand, rather than listening to win, and from that point seeking to move to response-ability – which involves either identifying what the needs are in order to move towards being able to make repair or designing the repair…
  8. Know that it is very much harder, developmentally, for adolescents to come round from a psychologically split state of mind. Gone are the days when a hug and some tears made it easy to reset the dial. Teens are very prone to black and white thinking. Their evolutionary imperative is to live in risk and insecurity – to separate from parents, merge with peers, find themselves…Belonging is a huge issue and when belonging is threatened they can become polarised, hyper-sensitive, defensive and they will deal with their anxiety through projective means. This means they see their fears and faults ogre-ised in you. They will blame, shame, judge, other. They will fuel their point of high dudgeon or their narrative of unfairness, unkindness via friends on social media. So even though this drama is being played out at home, there is an interactive audience participation with their peers…which throws kerosine on the flames. It is the parent pre-frontal cortex which is VITAL to steer the ship back from deadlock with calm, matter of factness, authoritative boundaries – say what you mean and mean what you say…with empathy, compassion and connection.
  9. Sometimes to start afresh and get a reset, we need to drop the adversarial stand-off. It’s not necessarily about having a decision on who is right and who is wrong. Or about crime and punishment. Think about Truth and Reconciliation. Help that by trying to connect – use your own capacity for theory of mind to reflect back your own understanding of the emotional dynamics of where they are at…Use mirroring and labelling techniques to dig deeper into their emotional state why it matters, what the impact is for them…so they feel heard, that their feelings resonate, and matter. It is understanding that leads to responsibility, repair, reconnection and the restitution of kindness – the give-and-take and reciprocity that builds a positive feedback loop.
  10. Don’t deal in chores at home…emphasise and value every contribution. Structure involvement in the running of the house – but emphasise what you do for others and what they do for the family in a framework of kindness and generosity – rather than merely a duty done. Make it good thing, give it extra kickback and recognition. Not in a showy way – but this is more important than ever to dig deep and find authentic ways of doing this where give and take is not in place. there is a saying ‘the scent lingers in the hand that gives the rose…’ Allow the scent to exist and linger. Savour it – let it land – show appreciation…begin to re-orient the downward spiral.
  11. What you focus on grows. Things aren’t going to be sugar soup overnight – and neither would you really want it to be…BUT in the mean time, take every opportunity to praise behaviour you see, behaviour that you like, any contribution to harmony, however small. AS the parent, keep a journal where you take a small amount of time to do some deliberate practice of looking for your warring child / children’s strengths, moments where something good or something better was emerging. Balance up within you, your inner losada ratio – the ratio of positive thoughts to negative thoughts so that – from a point of greater authentic balance, you can catch them doing something right and have a better chance of articulating it a way that won’t sound fake, because it will come more naturally. When we are locked in dynamics of unkindness, we get out of practice, and the praise we have will sound tinny. It won’t ring true, and your kid will restock their resentment and be on it straight away…We also need to embed the good – make it stick…HEAL
    Have good experiences
Extend / elongate the good experience
Absorb them – ask each other about the good experiences – reflect on them – take them in
Link the good experience – to other parts of the relational narrative, the strengths of the individual, our own sense of story.

These may be ways of turning around relational burn-out and ‘growing the good’…

Shakespeare wrote much on the theme of kindness and kinship. Many of his metaphors on the subject give a nod to this inherent, evolutionary link. But ironically, the ones that spring most readily to my mind are the ones that come out of a backdrop culture of callousness.

Lady Macbeth – she of the famous invocation for the ‘murdering ministers’ to take her ‘milk for gall’ – worries that her (initially) squeamish husband is “too full of the milk of human kindness” to take the shortcut to kingship.

The phrase coined here has resonated down the years. The intimate nurture of the newborn via the mother’s milk is linked to kindness. Kindness leads to connection, nurturance and growth. And like the act of breast-feeding, it benefits giver and receiver in the release of the love hormone oxytocin. Not only does the milk contain oxytocin, it contains serotonin which converts to melatonin and helps with the onset of sleep…and well slept babies lead to happier parents who can top themselves up in turn.

Indeed child development research has shown that even at 2 years old – before the development of ‘mind mindedness’ or the ability to understand that other people have mental states – tiddlers will offer comfort to someone in distress – even though there is no reward expected in return. There is an evolutionary benefit to kindness – to create connection, consolidate belonging, it is part of the human superpower of collaboration.

In his article, written at the start of the pandemic, ‘Covid, Racism, and Black Lives Matter: A deadly constellation’, Graham Music reflects on our tribal preferences, and some of the barriers to a kinder, fairer world…He refers to research revealing that babies – as young as 15 months show clear tendencies to prefer pro-social, fair behaviour. But -tellingly- when the unfairness is to someone of another race, they care less…(Burns & Somerville 2014).

So from birth, we have an intuitive feel for kindness. We know what kindness feels like – and we instantly know what unkindness feels like. But as Music points out our evolutionary heritage in the way we relate to each other is not always equitable. We tend to be kind to the people who are like us / close to us – in our own groups.

Research has shown that babies are biased towards those who look like them / their parents or carers and tend to show aversion to those who are different. We evolved in small hunter-gatherer communities – and the neurochemistry of belonging has not really changed that much since being on the savannah. We evolved to distrust the ‘other’ and COVID has taken those survival instincts to do with ‘approach’ or ‘avoid’ to a whole new survival level.

Similarly the ‘Football’ experiment looked into this in adulthood-  an actor in another team’s kit was placed strategically on a route where many fans of the opposing team were walking to the stadium. He writhed in pain. 90% walked past him when wearing the other team’s kit. (0% helped when wearing the same kit. Similarity activates empathy and kindness. Difference dials it down and can be used to shut it off.  

And in order to ‘other’ people and take ruthless action against them, kindness, and nature, have to be suppressed. AND so in the tragedy of Macbeth, we see a downward spiral of callousness and inhumanity unfold. Shakespeare gives a forensic account of the unkindness equation, in order to subject others to brutality or exile, we have to dehumanise ourselves, and dehumanise others… “We have scorched the snake not killed it” is how Macbeth rationalises the need to kill Duncan’s children.

From the pushback of refugees into the sea in Greece, to the unbuilt walls of polarization in the US: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best….They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

Trace the history of oppression through the ages and you see the same othering – from Goebbels writing pseudo academic papers questioning whether Jews had souls, to the white slave owners in Barbados changing the narrative of dehumanisation to being based on colour ‘blackness’ rather than religion in the face of the threat of the directive to convert the ‘heathen’ slaves to Christianity…a systemic need to preserve the distance between humans in order to preserve unkindness.

Bringing it down to the level of what concerns safeguard leads of schools – is what goes on behind the mask or screen – the demonising, othering, hounding, shaming of others in the world of cyberbullying. One small misdemeanour, one slip of a text or screenshot and your indiscretion is broadcast and the pack forms… The shaming, rejecting, excluding of those who get scapegoated for their otherness and contain the anxiety of those whose social currency is based on dominance and competition rather than kindness and likeability.

The tribal divisions and fissures emerging from the legacy of who came to school during lockdown and those who didn’t – those who met and mingled, and those who didn’t. Those who lived in chronic stress at home with the unremitting reality of family conflict, threat, dischord, unkindness, abuse. Those who come back with a legacy of disconnection from their work or from others in the form of social anxiety and school refusal. Those who found home a sanctuary and have felt anxious and avoidant in the return.

Bullying is a systemic unkindness, an insistence on the othering of others in order to consolidate belonging in the perpetrator. To project and expel their own vulnerability. It is a gang-like state of mind that does not come from a mindset of abundance. 

What is it that we can do? Both in our personal and professional leadership to bring on a more systemic kindness?

There is no doubt that in recent decades, we have become more individualistic, and with that come rises in perfectionism and narcissism. And the strains of the pandemic are likely to have increased that trait. We can’t make other people nicer than they are or kinder to us. WE can only change ourselves and walk the walk on kindness, in the home, in school, in the way we interact with others.

This is the power of one.

We can give attention and emphasise our accessibility by dialling up our listening skills.

WE can smile extra hard with our eyes when we wear a mask, and focus on a warmth of tone.

When we aren’t masked, we can relax our eye and jaw muscles and deliberately, mindfully smile in corridors, nod and greet each other in the street – even in London! We can thank people and notice the small stuff.
We should celebrate and reward kindness wherever we see it. We should make it a focus, share stories of it and set kindness challenges.

We should unpack the feelings that attend to acts of kindness and appreciation. WE should also recognise that it takes courage to give and receive kindness. It is not only a soft skill, it is a strength

WE should place the highest value on this highest of human capacities. And when we do the following can take place:
• The power of one – leading with kindness is highly protective of individual and collective wellbeing.
• Downregulating ourselves and others to safety – that sweet point of openness and receptivity. Mindfully modelling that whenever we can.
• We create a cascade effect – and precipitate more kindness. When we are kind, we are inclusive, and inclusive kindness is particularly important.
• The capacity for kindness is a potent indicator for fulfilment in relationships – so we pay it forward for future wellbeing.
• Kindness – and living in a culture of kindness – reduces stress and boosts the immune function. It provides a surge in serotonin and oxytocin – the feel-good factor is concrete and biological. There is a social genetic effect that reduces inflammation and physical illness and increases psychological safety and raises the pain threshold.
• We need to acknowledge the inherent and unconscious bias to kindness and seek to check it, question it, challenge it. We have to work towards extending our circle of ‘we’ to be more inclusive. More embracing of our collective humanity.
• We can internalize kindness and see ourselves as more worthy of self-compassion – leading to greater agency and adaptive growth when things go wrong.
• We can be kind and tough – these are not antithetical – and we should watch for the gender socialisation influences around behaving in nurturing ways and get that yin/yang balance installed within all of us…
• WE also need to know that good people behave unkindly for a reason – and act with curiosity and ruthless compassion around that. People behave badly when they have no bandwidth for others – the deficit mindset. When they are emotionally exhausted. When they feel locked in cycles of shame, when they are unable to take anything else in, when they depersonalise others.

It is simple really – and I talk about this a lot – good relationships are based on good interactions. How can we make kindness more visible in our values. So that it is rewarded and recognised. So that it is made manifest around us. How can we make kindness more of a social and cultural norm – so that it feels more natural, and comes more easily. WE did a burst of it at the start of the pandemic – and now we especially need to dig in to it as times of austerity, payback, and hardship lie ahead.
Good relationships are not just ‘nice to have’ – they are essential to our wellbeing and growth. The ability to give and take is a sign of integration. The vital capacity to be in abundance and give to others…but also the equally vital capacity to receive and accept help, the kindness of others – to live in true connection with others. This is what is required to move from behind our masks, and our individual bunkered minds – especially when times are hard. And to contribute to making the lived experience of life in all its struggles more hopeful.
There was a similar call to collective societal compassion and greater equity at the end of the global catastrophe of World War 2, which led to the creation of the welfare state in England. We need to take a stand on a micro as well as a macro level – for the world we want to shape. And if ever there is – once more – a global need for kindness and compassion as a start point to recognise and remediate inequality and build a better world – it is now.
What will you take from this World Mental Health Day edition out into your family life, your school, your community, and into our society?

And how will you encourage your children to extend their capacity for kindness in the home, and at school – even and especially if it is currently at a low level – take the spirit of kindness out into the world and help make it a better and fairer place?

With love and kindness to you all

BBC Radio 4 programme on kindness: Music article: 

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