The One Question I Always Ask My Kids After School Is About Kindness, Not Academics

by Courtney Byrne
Originally Published: 
Courtney Byrne

Last school year, I asked the same question each day on the drive home from school: What did you do today that was kind?

It started for a few different reasons, but caught on and turned into more of an important conversation-starter than I expected.

If there’s one thing all of our schools could use (and really, the world in general), it’s more kindness, so I decided to share this daily ritual we have and why I hope to continue it for years to come.

Before I lose you, I want to be paint a clear picture of the scene in our car every day when we talked about kindness. I don’t want you to dismiss this because it seems like another post written by a calm, put-together mom sharing words on how to make your children behave like her lovely calm children. I tend to dart from those articles, too, but that’s not what is happening here.

I am not a calm mother who never yells. My kids are not calm children either and exhibit their fair share of naughty behavior. While I swore I’d never drive a minivan, I swore even harder that I would never have one of those “messy” minivans with “stuff” all over the floor. Well, I drive a minivan, and it’s a disaster. When the girls would hop into it after school, they’d start tossing everything from school papers to lunch box leftovers. They’d usually start fighting over something and usually one or both of their little brothers would be screaming/crying because I woke them from a nap to pick their sisters up from school.

I am trying to paint a picture of our car — and my mental state at school pickup — and I’m hoping that’s coming together for you.

I’d ask the girls how their day was, usually in a not-so-friendly kind of annoyed tone. I’d get a “good” and nothing else.

One day, on a whim, I said, “Tell me something kind you did today.” It changed the tone in the car almost immediately. I asked again the next day, and then it stuck.

I didn’t remember to ask everyday. Sometimes we skipped it. Sometimes the girls came into the car beaming with excitement because they had something “kind” to share before I even asked. Those were the days I was really proud.

I’ve realized something during the first few years of my kids’ education: Not all kids are going to get a perfect report card and not all kids are going to excel in sports, music, etc. Often the picture we want to paint for our kids’ future isn’t necessarily the path they are going to choose. So really, why not spend more time focusing on raising good people?

How did this daily question change our conversations? Here are five reasons I think asking “How were you kind today?” is important and helpful for school-age kids:

1. It made for a positive way to discuss the day.

Like I mentioned, we were kind of in an after-school rut. It felt like a car of grumpy babies, toddlers, kids, and mom. This helped us feel a lot more happy and positive in the car. For me, as tired as I was, hearing my girls cheerfully tell me simple things like, “I gave Sarah my glue stick when I saw hers ran out” made me feel more cheerful too.

2. It helped them comfortably bring up times when people were unkind.

This is not why I initially started asking the question. The first time I heard “Well, let me tell you about who wasn’t kind today, Mom,” I replied with a “This is about good things. Tell me good things that happened first.” Then I thought about it: If the question about kindness helps them identify times when people are unkind and helps them talk to me about it, that’s actually a good thing.

It’s not easy to share when people are being unkind to you. It can feel embarrassing. It’s not something you feel proud of. I think kids “tattle” more when they are little but start to keep these feelings inside as they grow. So if our daily kindness chat is a place they are comfortable telling me when they felt sad at school, we’ll go with that too.

3. It helped me explain how sometimes what we think is the right thing can actually be the wrong thing.

This was something I never thought would come from our kindness chats, but it sure made things more interesting. For example: “Mom, I did something really kind today. I told Sarah that if she would just start believing in Jesus, then Santa would come to her house. Isn’t that great?!” While her intentions were good, that’s obviously not okay. It gave me a reason to explain (with a real life example) different religions and how people having different beliefs is a wonderful thing, and not something we should try to change.

Another example: “I was kind today when I screamed at Sarah for being mean to Jane and told her no one is ever going to play with her again because she’s mean.” Again, while sticking up for people is kind, there’s a right and wrong way to do it. This is a great time to explain the difference. It’s brought about many life lessons in an organic way, and that’s been helpful for all of us.

4. It helped me plan for a better “next day.”

There were days that I got a very, very grumpy “I did nothing kind today,” which is okay too. People aren’t awesome and kind every day. We all have bad days sometimes. They need to know that it’s normal to feel this way. Our daily kindness chat helped me know when they had a “not so great” day as school and gave me the opportunity to prep them to have a better day tomorrow.

5. It’s just a good way to raise kind people.

Knowing your kids’ grades and how they are doing academically is important, but I don’t think it needs to be the first thing you ask after school. While it’s tempting to ask “How much homework do you have?” or “What did you get on the spelling test?” focusing on kindness instead really made a positive difference for us. I want my kids to think that being a good person is going to make them more successful than anything else. By asking them how they were kind before inquiring about their academic performance, I hope they will begin to understand the importance of being a nice person.

As much as I hope people are kind to my kids, I truly hope they are kind to others. My kids seem to have very different personalities when it comes to school settings, so I feel that the kindness approach has to come from both a “How were you kind?” and a “How did you feel?” perspective.

As a parent, it can seem like there is less kindness and more terrible things happening in schools today. Perhaps it’s because we read and hear more about it. I suppose when we were kids, no one was sharing articles on bullying and there were no cyber-bullies because, well, there was no cyber. But I remember school as a really happy place, and that’s what I hope for my kids when I send them off to school every day.

In some ways, raising kind people is harder today because kids are exposed to social media and its often harsh realities at a young age. I learned to send a text message in college, and nowadays, I see elementary school kids sending them. When a kid decides to be unkind or when a kid is in a situation where others are being unkind to them, it’s harder to escape the situation. Kids can no longer just leave the playground and forget about it — they run the risk of being reminded of it all night long via text and social media. I think this makes it more important than ever to focus on the importance of kindness at school.

When the girls talked about kindness during our rides home last year, I found out there were a lot of things happening in kindergarten and first grade that I didn’t expect, but also a lot more really wonderful, kind things. We started talking about going back to school this year and what would be the same and what would be different (new classmates, same school, new teacher, same schedule). My daughter who is going into first grade said, “And you’ll still ask us about what we did that was kind, right?” That’s what made me sit down and write this.

My daughter remembered, and it was important to her. I will ask them again this year and each school year after. I see harder conversations stemming from the question as they get older, but my hope as a parent is that it helps them want to continue to be kind and share their feelings with me.

As parents, let’s join together and help our kids leave school each day talking about kindness.

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