Nothing sounds like kindness. Like the human voice, it has infinite variations, but is instantly recognizable:
- The scratchy, rhythmic sound of the neighbor’s broom sweeping leaves from my mother’s sidewalk at 11.30 pm so she wouldn’t slip on her way to the parking garage in the morning.
- The chemo-roughened voice of my three-year-old niece singing to her roommate at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles so she wouldn’t feel lonely.
- The sudden, almost breathless silence that fell when Don, a middle-aged volunteer at my local animal shelter, opened the door to the kennels and the dogs caught his scent. “They know I have treats,” he laughed, patting the pocket of his jacket. But you could tell by the way the dogs pressed themselves against the wire doors of their runs as he stopped to say hello that they were as hungry for his affection as his treats.
Oddly enough, kindness is not all that easy to define. Just ask the 18 second-graders we spent an hour with a few weeks ago. “What does kindness mean?” we asked.
“Be nice,” said one child.
“Don’t hurt animals,” said another.
“Help your mom,” said a third.
When questioned a little closer, some interesting things emerged. “Are your parents being kind when they make you go to bed even though you want to stay up?” we asked.
A chorus of gleeful “NOs!” was our answer, except for one curly headed boy who raised his hand and said, “But if I don’t go to bed, I’m cranky in the morning.”
“Okay, so what about shots? Who likes getting shots?” Frowns and silence were our answer. “Then why does the doctor give you shots?”
“So you don’t get sick and die!”
“Right, so is it kind to give you shots, even though they hurt?”
“Okay, so let’s think of some other examples of how to be kind.”
The most interesting insights to emerge for me were that genuine kindness can’t be faked and involves action. While it’s theoretically possible to simply sit and radiate kindness, every time I’ve experienced it, kindness involved being able to see and empathize with another living creature; genuinely wanting to do something to help, even if all I could do was listen; and the feeling of happiness I experienced knowing I’d made a difference.
These days, as we embark on our “Be Kind” campaign to help kids experience and practice kindness, I’m thinking a lot about the many versions of kindness and the sounds associated with them. Sound sidesteps the intellect and accesses memory in a non-linear way. In particular, I find myself remembering ways people and animals have been kind to me:
- The soft purr of my ancient tom cat who glued himself to my side for days after I had my wisdom teeth out;
- The sound of my grandmother’s voice at the other end of a bad phone connection, calling to let me know she was thinking of me; and
- The soft ping of an email arriving in my inbox with a poem from a friend. “Here’s something to remind you that you’re not alone,” he wrote.
You see that’s the other profoundly powerful lesson kindness has to teach. It’s as important to allow others to be kind to you – to accept, acknowledge and savor their kindness – as it is to act kindly yourself. It’s how we know we belong in the world and how we give back to it.
If you have some sounds of kindness you’ve like to share, please email us at: info@CritterKin.com and we’d be honored to post them
Tammy Massman likes to say that she is forever in 3rd grade, but I beg to differ. She is forever exploring, thinking like and with her third graders, but her vision for how she’d like them to experience learning is way beyond third grade. Sorry Ms. Massman, but you’re busted. Guilty of dreaming like a big person and the visionary you are
How do I know all this? On Wednesday, November 27 my CritterKin partner, Marty Keltz, and I paid a visit using SKYPE to Ms. Massman’s classroom. There we read a CritterKin story and introduced the kids to our “Be Kind” campaign. Simply put, “Be Kind” is a project designed to help kids experience and practice kindness both in and outside the classroom.
We began the introduction with the story of Ricky Bobby, a paralyzed puppy mill survivor and one of the main characters in our second book, “Meet the Mutts.” Like all our canine characters, Ricky has a challenge and lesson to share. His is the neglect he suffered while living in the puppy mill and the physical disabilities that resulted from that neglect. Ricky’s story offers kids a great way to think and talk about animal cruelty, physical handicaps and being different. However, Ricky Bobby’s story is special for another reason. His character is based on a real life, paralyzed puppy mill survivor, and he is the mascot for the “Be Kind” campaign. You can see a video of his journey here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKijNxsFBdU
After reading the story and sharing Ricky’s video, we asked the kids what we could do to help dogs living at animal shelters. A lively discussion followed. Donate food, make toys, help the shelters clean cages, walk dogs, make flyers and posters, hold a car wash to raise money; the list got longer and longer. Finally we realized it would be best to ask the people working at the shelters what they needed most. At Tammy’s urging, the kids got out their iPads, began searching Google for local shelters, and took notes about what to ask. The jury is still out about whether to call or write, but we are pretty clear about the questions.
Next we talked about what would not only help the dogs, but be fun for us to do as well. Again the kids dove right in, suggesting an adoption campaign with posters, photos, stories and posts to blogs, web sites and social media. These kids are nothing if not tech savvy! You can see the results of our thinking on their new Pinterest board here: http://www.pinterest.com/critterkin/neh-third-grade/ We’ll be posting updates, photos, and artwork as the project grows.
The kids ended our meeting by giving us a very special gift – they performed two terrific poems involving pants and a day that got worse and worse and worse. To say we were tickled doesn’t quite capture the laughter and smiles. Both Marty and I can hardly wait for our next sessions with the class. Thanks again Joseph, Kaitlin, Zack, Clay, Pasha, Perry, Tat, Jack, Samantha, Jadin, Paige, and of course Tammy Massman who is finding wonderful ways to open the hearts and minds of her third graders.
Be Kind Because….
I took a walk with Ricky Bobby the other day – the real Ricky Bobby, who is every bit as cute and a whole lot feistier than my illustration. Trotting along in his squeaky cart with his ears flapping and toenails clicking, he was a magnet for every kid who passed. Some were charmed, others puzzled, and a few simply delighted. “Cool!” one little boy exclaimed. “How fast can he go?”
Time after time we stopped to let the kids introduce themselves and ask questions. The older ones were touchingly circumspect, careful to ask indirect questions about Ricky’s back legs, the diaper he wears and how he became paralyzed. But the younger kids dove right in. “What’s the matter with him? Can he pee by himself? Does his back hurt? Is he friendly? Can I touch him?”
Their avid curiosity, frank questions and clear concern when they heard about Ricky’s past reminded me how important it is to help kids see, feel, touch and practice kindness. Every child who stroked Ricky’s silky ears or got a friendly lick from his overeager tongue while we talked was learning kindness through the senses. And every child who heard his story walked away with a simple lesson – it’s good to care, it’s good to want to help, and you can make a difference.
So my simple message to every parent, educator and librarian out there is get behind “Be Kind” because there’s no greater lesson than the power of kindness to create positive change in the world. Just ask Ricky Bobby.
I’m a Work in Progress
You wouldn’t know it by the way popular media idolizes over achievers, superheroes, and those with “Extreme” lifestyles, but most of us are works in progress. This is particularly true of kids, and it’s important for them to know and celebrate the fact that life is about learning not perfection.
Like kids, the CritterKin mutts are too busy learning to share their toys and negotiate the intricacies of human-canine friendship to be worried about looking like Lassie or winning “Best in Show.” Even more importantly, dogs like Doxie, who have a few “issues” to work out, are a great way for kids to see and experience how challenges are met.
To put it simply, Doxie is a digger. He can’t seem to stop digging up his family’s flower beds and tunneling under the back fence. But the causes of Doxie’s habit are more complicated, and make for interesting discussions with kids. Why do you think Doxie digs? Do you think he is a bad dog? What do you think is the best way to get him to stop? Do you know anyone with a bad habit? These are just a few of the questions we’ve asked kids after reading them “Meet the Mutts,” and their responses have been both surprising and delightful.
Like Doxie, every dog in “Meet the Mutts” has a story and a lesson to share. How will Clue’s bossy behavior be handled by the other dogs? Will Lance, a scary looking pit bull mix, make friends and find a home? And how in the world will Ms. Jenaia manage to get a handle on the chaos at the dog park?
We hope you’ll grab a copy of “Meet the Mutts” today and read it with your kids. Explore some of the activities at the end, then let me know your thoughts. We’re committed to making CritterKin not only fun and engaging, but a great tool for teaching empathy, compassion and respect as well. Or as Doxie would say, “Wow, Wow, Wow!”
Email your thoughts, comments and suggestion to: email@example.com
Who Rescues Who?
Chapter 8 of the latest CritterKin book, “Meet the Mutts,” is about a tiny black and tan dachshund named Ricky Bobby who was rescued from a puppy mill. He is loosely based on an actual dog who now lives with my friend Megan Bliss. Megan has been commended time and again for her kindness in adopting Ricky Bobby (and rightly so), but you have only to see how being involved in his rehabilitation and efforts to educate the public about the horrors of puppy mills has enriched and broadened her life.
My point, of course, is that animals give as much as they take. They are emotional teachers and touchstones. Stories about and by them are not only fun (each of the mutts has some quirky personality traits), but give kids an important glimpse into other ways of seeing and being in the world. And every time I read Ricky Bobby’s story to them I am struck by the insightful questions they ask and how quickly they relate his challenges to their own.
There’s also an “Exploration” guide at the back of “Meet the Mutts” that’s my way of saying, “Let’s play and learn together!” I hope you’ll grab a copy of the book for your kids, read it to them, and dive into the art projects and role playing exercises. Let me know what works, and any additional ideas you may have for making the CritterKin pack not only fun and engaging, but a great tool for teaching empathy, compassion and respect as well. Or as Ricky Bobby would say, “I wanna go fast!”
Email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Sounds of Kindness: Part II
The second half of the “Dog Adoption and Humane Awards” event began with an invitation to present First Lady Ann McCrory with the framed artwork I’d created for the occasion. To understand the significance of the invitation, you need a little history.
As you can see from the photo on the left, the illustration is of a tiny black and tan dachshund in a cart. The subject of the illustration is a real dog known as “Ricky Bobby” who was rescued by the HSUS from a Sampson County puppy mill in February of 2013. Due to the severe neglect he experienced in the puppy mill, his back legs are paralyzed. The cart he uses was built by Megan Bliss, the woman who adopted and now cares for him. You can see the touching story of his rescue and learn more about their lives together here: Ricky Bobby and Megan
When Megan and I became friends, and I learned about Ricky Bobby’s history, I decided to make him a main character in “Meet the Mutts,” the latest CritterKin book. Each of the CritterKin characters has a lesson to share, and Ricky Bobby’s was both simple and compelling: Animal cruelty is unacceptable.
At the same time I was writing the book and creating the art, Megan was connecting with animal advocates across the state. This included First Lady Pat McCrory who fell in love with Ricky Bobby. The dog event on November 16th seemed like the perfect time to give the First Lady a framed copy of Ricky Bobby’s illustration, but I didn’t expect to give it to her in-person. Happily, the Governor made that possible.
Motioning for my photographer and I to follow, he led us into the executive mansion and introduced the First Lady. When I explained that the illustration was of her buddy Ricky Bobby, her face lit up. “Thank you for this,” she said, giving me a quick hug, “I just love that little dog.”
“I think we should hang this in the library,” Governor McCrory said, holding the frame at arm’s length. “I know just the spot.” Quickly he led the way across the hall into the wood paneled room where a cheerful fire burned. “Doesn’t it look good here?” he said, holding the image against one of the white walls. We all agreed it did. “Okay, let’s do it!” he said.
The rest of the day was spent playing in the bright fall sun with the dogs, and talking to people who were there to meet them. To say it was a special day doesn’t do the event justice. There was a relaxed camaraderie about the way people were interacting as they snuggled tired puppies, filled out adoption forms and compared notes on vets. Thinking back, I’m reminded of a quote by writer Roger Caras who said, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.” For those few hours on the front lawn of the Governor’s mansion, watched over by the spirit of Ricky Bobby and surrounded by dogs and people who love them, life felt whole.