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The Kindness Tree and How Easy it is to Corrupt a Child’s Moral Compass

When my children were asked recently by a friend, what is the most important rule in our household, they couldn't think of one. 'I don't think mum's got any rules ...' they mused. The following day, one of my daughters suggested that kindness is the most important rule in our house. I reflected on this exchange: it's true whenever there's a dispute between the children I remind them that 'kindness is our only task in life.'

I don't have many rules, but there are some –albeit not draconian and mostly negotiable. And kindness is the one that stands above all the other rules – like the washing up rota or doing maths or going to bed more or less when I ask them. I'm not sure 'rule' is the right descriptor. I have been known to bellow 'BE KIND!!' to bickering siblings, but this somewhat undermines the principle. My intention is to invite kindness by example and we generally rub along easily enough together, and I think that's because kindness has become our family's core value.

I've thought a lot about kindness, especially since my oldest daughter was in primary school. In her class, the teacher had created a Kindness Tree with the surface intention of fostering more kindness amongst the children and, the unspoken consequence, of setting the children against each other and deferring to people in power for validation. The class was divided into teams and whenever a child was spotted doing something kind by a teacher, they were invited to pin a leaf in their team's colour to the tree. At the end of term, the team with the most leaves on the tree would win a prize.

How does this strike you?

I found it utterly abhorrent. The idea that an authority figure would acknowledge and reward acts of kindness with a prize for the 'winners' and nothing for the 'losers' so thoroughly undermines what kindness is that I felt it would be better not to mention kindness to the children than to so warp it's practice that children grow up mistaking a show of kindness for the true selfless thing that kindness is.

In our culture many big businesses pupport to be doing some sort of good in the world as a disguise for the more nefarious, power-hungry greed that drives the boardroom decisions. The show of charity rewarded and celebrated because we are happy to settle for the shallow and showy. Let's pin a leaf to the Kindness Tree in MacDonald's team colours for the kindness they show to children with cancer, and quietly forget the way their advertising and selling of trashy 'food' contributes to morbidity around the globe on a massive scale. Oh, a leaf for Nestle too for their Disaster Relief, but let's not mention the millions of babies in these same disaster-prone regions who have suffered, some to the point of death because their mothers believed the advertising that Nestle could do better than the breast even where there's little sanitation and no clean water.

Alfie Khon makes the case in his aptly titled book, Punished By Rewards that fostering extrinsic drivers through the use of rewards diminishes the intrinsic movtivation that arises when we want to do something just because. Just because it feels good. Just becasue it helps someone. Just because ....

Let's be cautious about rewarding children for something that is a priceless expression of a loving heart and gently reclaim the possibility of being kind just because.

Just because we can!

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