Random Acts Of Kindness Are Not Enough. How About Some Real Service Work?

by Alice Christopherson
Originally Published: 
random acts of kindness / Shutterstock

When I was 8, I asked for an Easy-Bake Oven for Christmas. Personal pan pizzas were all the rage, and nothing went better with a BOOK IT! dinner (remember those?) than a single-serving slab of funfetti cake cooked underneath a blinking light bulb. This was the ’90s after all.

It wasn’t long before I realized that my Easy-Bake Oven was a piece of shit. The center of my desserts were always mushy, and no matter how long I stirred the powdery mix with my miniature plastic whisk, part of my cake always tasted like chalk.

Kids like to do real work. Montessori education is based on the idea that kids can contribute, and if you involve them in real work from the beginning, they grow not only to do it well but also to enjoy it. In a Montessori classroom or home, a child would learn to cook using real, child-sized kitchen utensils and a real oven (with adult supervision of course).

With the exception of the child-sized utensils, which I doubt existed in rural Minnesota in 1993, this is how I eventually learned to bake the best funfetti cake my Girl Scout troop ever tasted.

There’s a type of community service that reminds me of that Easy-Bake Oven. You might call it random acts of kindness, paying it forward, or filling someone’s bucket. The idea is that one good deed creates a chain effect. If we make someone’s day, they will, in turn, do something kind for someone else, who will do something kind for someone else, and so on and so forth.

It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Scientists even say it works.

Except, like the Easy-Bake Oven, it’s all bullshit.

A quick Pinterest search for random acts of kindness turned up these ideas:

– Hold the door open for someone.

– Help someone carry something heavy. – Tape a bag of microwave popcorn to a Redbox machine. – Let someone go ahead of you in line. – Smile at everyone you meet. – Return someone else’s shopping cart at the grocery store.

These ideas sound like common human decency, mixed with a little bit of silliness. When we tell ourselves — and when we teach our children — that this is what community work looks like, we’re doing everybody a big disservice.

Random acts of kindness are low-risk. They’re easy. When the random act is meant to be anonymous, you don’t even have to interact with someone unfamiliar. You don’t have to go into a strange neighborhood. When you teach your children that helping someone means buying a triple caramel macchiato for the person behind you in line at Starbucks, who most likely can afford the $6 extravagance (why else would they be in line?), you don’t have to have real conversations about poverty or racism or war.

Like the Easy-Bake Oven, this kind of community service is a cheap version of the real deal. But it sure is fun and cute!

Yes, letting someone go ahead of you in line will probably inspire them to do something kind for someone else, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not against spreading happiness. Completely the opposite, actually. Searching for ways to encourage kindness and compassion in our children is admirable. We all should strive to bring joy to other people’s lives.

For most people, random acts of kindness are the beginning of their community work, not the end. This is fantastic.

The problem is when we confuse random acts of kindness with social justice work. The danger is that we will hold the door open for someone, pat ourselves on the back for doing a good deed, and then fail to do anything to create real institutional or structural change.

This Christmas, consider approaching community work from the Montessori perspective. Let’s graduate our kids to the real oven so to speak, and with an adult by their side, guide them into meaningful community work.

This will look different for every family. Maybe you want to introduce the topic of homelessness to your kids for the first time. You can follow it up by making care kits for people who are homeless. Hand those kits out to the people who are holding signs at intersections and on-ramps. Make eye contact. Give a genuine greeting, or better yet, have a conversation.

Or you could talk to your family about hunger and then donate canned goods to a food kitchen in your community. Maybe your kids can help you stock shelves. If there are customers using the food kitchen, ask if you can bag their groceries. Wish them a nice evening.

Are your kids ready to have bigger conversations? This summer, I began talking to my son about racism: a sign of our white privilege, to be sure, as many kids experience the negative impacts of racism long before they’re 4 years old. We read books about the Civil Rights Movement, talked about the role protest plays in democracy, and participated in a family protest calling for justice for Philando Castile. The boys and I picked up a Black Lives Matter sign together and placed it in our front yard.

So when the adults around my son started talking about the Standing Rock protest this fall, he had an idea of what it meant. “Are they using signs and their voices to tell people not to build that oil pipe? Are they walking back and forth and standing in a line with their arms crossed all day and all night?”

I answered his questions as best as I could, balancing honesty with my assessment of his maturity and readiness to contemplate tough issues. We read books about indigenous history and colonialism. We learned about Native American cultures today, listened to electric powwow music from A Tribe Called Red, and talked about what was happening in North Dakota.

When a friend collected items to take to Standing Rock, my husband and I took the kids to the store and had them help pick out waterproof gloves and tarps.

Yesterday, when it became clear that the Dakota Access Pipeline would be rerouted away from Standing Rock, my husband and I celebrated. I couldn’t wait to tell my son when he woke up in the morning.

He studied me seriously and then declared, “Mom, I think the water protectors won the good fight.”

Yes, indeed.

Kids know what’s real and what isn’t. And like that 8-year-old me, chewing on another cardboard-flavored batch of Easy-Bake brownies, they crave the real thing.

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