October 3, 2019
by Renee Wright, Lower School director
Editor’s Note: On the first Thursday of each month, you will find a guest Head’s Message here from one of MPA’s division directors. We hope you enjoy reading their thoughts and reflections about life at MPA.
I have many fond memories from childhood and a deep respect for my parents for teaching me important lifelong values and lessons. Kindness was a cherished virtue for my family, and many conversations in our home centered on being a kind, caring, and compassionate person. While my parents and grandparents modeled kindness and compassion, I can recall a time as a youngster when I struggled to apply their teachings in a real-life situation. Neighborhood children were teasing and making fun of a young boy. Being a shy and somewhat introverted child, I watched and chose not to say anything or otherwise intervene. Later, that bothered me. When I finally spoke to my parents about what was happening, they coached me to stand up for this boy and show him the kindness he deserved. I took their advice and the next time I witnessed unkindness toward him I told the neighborhood children to stop their behavior and bravely told the boy I wanted to be his friend. I can still see the smile that spread across his face when he heard my words. I believe I made a difference for that little boy. I am sure you can recall similar situations growing up. My parents’ teachings and my reflections on childhood have led to my strong commitment as an educator to teach students to be kind, caring, and compassionate. In my opinion, learning kindness is as important as mastering timetables.
Richard Weissbourd, Harvard Psychologist at the Graduate School of Education, runs the Making Caring Common (MCC) Project. He believes that the most important responsibility for parents is to teach kindness and empathy to their children. While I believe that most parents would not disagree with this premise, the research suggests that, in practice, parents inadvertently act otherwise. In a recent study conducted by MCC, 80% of youth surveyed said their parents were more concerned with their academic achievement than with their compassion and care for others. In fact, youth interviewees were three times more likely to agree that their parents were prouder of them if they got good grades than if they showed acts of kindness at school or in their community.
Children are not born inherently good or bad. Every human being has the capacity for kindness. But a kind character does not develop in a vacuum. Working together toward the same goal, parents and schools must nurture children’s capacity for kindness. Children develop character by what they see, what they hear, what they are repeatedly asked to do, and what they are rewarded for. Parents and teachers must model kindness through words and actions and must give children many opportunities to practice being kind. This is especially important, and more challenging than ever, given the current political culture, the era of entitled and self-centered children, and the dominance of electronic screen time.
The family is the first school of virtue; it is where most of us first experience love and learn to give love in return. Most young children naturally care about their small circle of family and friends. Parents must teach kids to care about people beyond their inner circle: to care, for example, for the new student in their school, the neighbor who speaks a different language, people from other countries and cultures, and people who are the most vulnerable. Learning compassion takes guidance, practice, and more practice. It is no different from learning to play a sport or ride a bike. Over time, kindness and compassion can become a habit and I see that habit forming for all of our children at MPA.
Schools are also responsible for modeling, discussing, celebrating, and practicing kindness throughout every part of the school day. Schools that model healthy conflict resolution, compassionate discipline techniques, and positive relationships with adults and students, as well as being grounded in a curriculum that teaches kindness, in a program that dispenses rigor with compassion, in an environment with a positive cultural ethos, and in robust partnerships with parents, are schools that provide the environment essential for raising kind, empathetic, and compassionate children. Through empathy, courage, and positive support, children learn to be kind. This is the MPA way!
After reading a lot over the summer about raising kind and caring children in our challenging world, I was reminded how lucky I am to be part of a school that truly makes teaching kindness and compassion a priority. Through strong character education programs in all three divisions at Mounds Park Academy and through an all-school commitment to nurturing empathy, kindness, respect, courage, and inclusion, our faculty and staff model and instill the value of being kind and caring human beings. Character Happens At Mounds Park (CHAMP) assemblies, community service projects, giving students a voice and opportunity to shape the culture of the school, promoting collaboration over competition, cooperative learning, and encouraging teamwork all contribute to our school culture of kindness and compassion. Students in all divisions are given ample opportunities to practice these traits on a daily basis so that these traits become internalized and part of who our students are as people and who we are as a community. MPA works hard to raise children to be kind and compassionate adults and so do our families.
As the Lower School director, I recently asked students what they believe are the most important things they learn in Lower School at MPA. The answers varied slightly with many students mentioning learning to read, doing math, or learning to write. I expected that. But I was overwhelmed by the fact that every student interviewed in grades kindergarten through four mentioned CHAMP as being very important to them.
Whether young or old, we never forget acts of kindness. They touch something deep in our souls and shape our thinking. Acts of kindness renew our sense of goodness and inspire us to be kinder compassionate humans. New studies show that even very young children are happier when they act in kind and helpful ways. Mother Theresa once said, “Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier.” As students make their academic journey through MPA, they learn how to do right in the world and understand the important role they play in making the world a kinder, happier, more compassionate, and respectful place. I am so proud to join you—MPA parents, students, faculty, staff, and friends—on this journey.