From Anger to Kindness at Dinner (and the rest of the time)
"Etymologically, to be “kind” is related to the word “kin” — treating others as we would our own kind, our family, ourselves." ~Sharon Salzberg
I have been thinking about kindness all month long. How does it apply to my life and my role as parent and partner, community member and human being?
One thing I learned is that I am really good at being kind and compassionate when I like the way my kids are behaving. Do something I judge as unkind to me or to someone I love however, and out comes my inner tiger.
Just when kindness is needed the most, I lose it.
In my interview with Meena Sriviasan this month, I mention that being kind requires courage and strength, especially when the going gets tough. Sure when my kids are being cooperative and easy going I can dole out kindness all day long, but my real challenge comes when one of my kids snaps. Immediately I find myself triggered, below the line and righteous. I notice myself snapping back or harshly correcting my kids when they’re being unkind.
Recently my son was “mean" to his sister. When that happened, I did what many of us do as parents. I yelled at him!
Funny, I thought to myself as I noticed this. My response to his unkindness certainly didn’t feel very kind. What became more interesting however, was noticing how difficult it was for me in the moment to muster up kindness in myself when I witnessed his “act of unkindness”.
Once again, it all comes back to me.
So I began my journey of looking within.
As always, I start with one simple question:
Where am I?
I was below the line for sure. I noticed, in the face of unkindness, my first reaction was to get angry.
What’s up with that reaction?
Fear. Good old reliable parenting fear. I was simply afraid. In that nanosecond, at least three thousand fearful thoughts paraded through my brain.
What’s wrong with him??? He is so mean!
He has a terrible temper, I need to get him some therapy!
He is going to grow up to be a jerk.
What have I done to raise a kid to be so mean? I am such a bad parent!
Why can’t I just have some peace in this house?
I wonder if she is going to be permanently damaged by his rude words?
They are going to hate each other as adults and I am not going to have that perfect thanksgiving dinner!
All those instantaneous thoughts immediately triggered me, and I went unconscious. In a second. I had no access to kindness or rational thinking or anything else other than REACTION. My go to reaction is anger.
From this place of anger I yelled at my son.
To be clear, I yelled “Stop it! Be kind and respectful!"
Ok, so let’s look at that. I was demanding from below the line from a place of anger that he BE KIND TO HIS SISTER.
Seriously, in black and white on paper it’s obvious that this is crazy. In the moment however, it seemed completely rational to yell him into kindness.
About 4 breaths later, it seemed rather ridiculous. As I write this now, it just seems funny!
So what happened when I yelled? I’m sure you can imagine. He yelled back, then she did,and we all got embroiled in emotional drama. Just another family dinner:-)
I’ve seen this show before. Einstein says “You cannot change a situation from the same consciousness from which it was created."
In this case, I suspect if I were to get present, locate myself as below the line and angry, take a few deep breaths and consciously choose to respond with kindness, I have created a much different outcome.
What I know is that kindness begets kindness. If I want him to be kind, then I must practice kindness myself. How else is he supposed to learn unless I model it for him?
To be clear, there are a variety of kind responses. This is not an invitation to be sugar and spice. From presence, kindness can look many different ways.
Here are some thoughts on possible kind responses:
- I notice you are feeling angry. What’s going on?
- I can see you are frustrated, would it make sense to go chill out in your room for a bit?
- I get that you are mad and I am happy to work through this with you and your sister. Let’s talk about it after dinner.
- name that the "angry monster" has joined the dinner table
- make the complaint really big and dramatic (reframe the behavior and make it funny and silly)
- “You are so right!!! She is so annoying…...."
- Create Boundaries
- You can say No, nicely.
- "Calling names is not ok even when you are frustrated”
- "Yelling at someone is not acceptable. Try again please"
When we are above the line and present there are so many options available to us. Kindness is just a breath away. Our job is simply to continue to cultivate our own awareness to have unlimited access to the abundance of creative choices at our disposal.
Above, I mention that being kind requires courage and strength. When I look at how easy it is for me to drop into anger and move away from kindness at the dinner table with my kids in a seemingly benign circumstance I become acutely aware of how hard it can be for us collectively to embrace kindness with one another. I believe it takes great strength to build the muscle of self awareness and to choose to shift from a reactive state to kindness when you are triggered. I believe it takes deep courage to be kind in the face of unkindness.
Given all that has occurred in the world in recent weeks and months, this month of focusing on kindness in my life has had me thinking about the power of it all. Truly. If we all took responsibility for our awareness and had the strength and courage to choose kindness over fear and anger with our children, a I can’t help but wonder what the next generation would look like.
I invite you to open your heart and dig into compassion each time you notice “unkindness” in someone you love, or even a stranger, and choose kindness. And not just outwardly but in your heart and mind. Pay attention to your unkind thoughts and gently invite a kinder one to take it’s place. Notice how the world around begins to change and breath into your power.
It all starts right here, right now with one simple breath.
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