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A friend of mine wondered aloud the other day, “Why are we all so damned mean to each other?”
You wouldn’t expect such musings from this friend. He’s a big dude with a beard, a shaved head, and a bunch of tattoos—definitely the sort who’s more comfortable in the smoky barroom than the stuffy boardroom. He knows how to fight, and he thinks everyone should train with weights and learn how to protect themselves.
I guess you could say he can be pretty mean himself sometimes. So when he notices how mean we’ve all become, it must be pretty bad.
Everything somehow tends to bring me back to the not quite six-year-old daughter I lost to a sudden illness several years ago, and my friend’s observation was no exception. I started thinking about my daughter’s worldview as an innocent five-year-old.
Unlike us hardened adults, she (and most kids) wasn’t purposefully mean to anyone. She was the opposite of that: open and gentle and kind.
Maybe we can learn a few lessons from her, and from all children, about how to treat each other with more kindness.
1. Open ourselves to the possibility of forming new friendships.
As adults, experience tells us to be cautious when we meet new people. Our speech is measured, and we put up walls so they can only see glimpses of who we really are.
Trust is earned over time, not given freely. Perhaps there’s wisdom in behaving this way, but it’s certainly an impediment to friendship.
When a child walks into a room and sees another child, friendship is almost instantaneous. They not only warmly greet each other with smiles and laughter, but they often offer a toy or snack or even embrace within minutes of first meeting. I’m not suggesting we all go out and start groping complete strangers, but I have so-called friends I’ve known for a decade or more who I don’t recall ever touching outside of a handshake.
The first cue we can take from children on our journey to being nicer people is to lower those walls just a little. At least be open to the possibility of making a new friend rather than assuming everyone we meet wants to sell us something or is looking to take advantage of us in some way.
2. Live in the moment.
I’ve often told a story about rushing to get my daughter to preschool one morning. One arm was filled with her backpack, her lunch box, and my laptop as I wrestled her into her jacket with the other. If you’re a parent, you know this chaotic drill all too well.
We labored toward the car parked in front of our house. I had morning meetings scheduled and did not want to be late, though I knew my fate even as I struggled to avoid it.
Suddenly, she stopped dead in her tracks and bent over to inspect something on the sidewalk. “Ruby, we don’t have time for this,” I muttered as I reached for her arm to drag her along.
She pulled away and continued her inspection of…nothing. I tried coaxing her to move along by offering some sort of sugary treat for the drive, but she was laser focused on…nothing.
Exasperated, I dropped everything to join her and see what could possibly be so interesting. I knelt and squinted and then knelt some more. My nose was practically touching cement, and still I saw not a damned thing.
She ran her tiny finger along the ground, and finally I saw it. She was following the path of some miniscule red bug that was no bigger than a speck of dust. I’ll never know how she was able to spot this thing while walking toward the car.
She knew our morning routine as well as I did, and she was certainly aware that I was fighting a losing battle against the clock to herd us toward our various obligations for the day. But when she saw an opportunity to stop and immerse herself in the here and now, none of what was supposed to happen 20 minutes in the future mattered. There was only the tiny bug that was right there in front of her.
Okay, so what does this have to do with treating each other better?
When she was snuggling with me, or playing a game with me, or sharing an ice cream with me, her complete and intense state of being present made me feel pretty special. It made me, and anyone else she was with, feel like she really valued that time.
All we really want from each other is to feel valued and important, but we can’t make anyone feel that way if we’re constantly distracted. Just being physically in the same room with someone while our minds are elsewhere isn’t enough.
Our loved ones need our attention. They want us to listen to what they have to say and laugh and cry with them and really share ourselves.
One of the quickest ways to be more present in the moment is to put our phones down and pay attention to the real person who’s right there in front of us. If they’re ever gone, we’ll wish we had that time back more than anything else.
3. Communicate more clearly.
Knowing where we stand with a child is very easy. They’ll tell us to our faces with straightforward language completely devoid of any hidden agenda. Sure, this unfiltered honesty creates plenty of cringeworthy moments, but at least we know exactly what’s on their minds and what we need to fix.
“Dad, what’s that gross bump on your cheek?”
“Well son, it’s a pimple I was really hoping everyone wouldn’t notice when I stand in front of the group to present at that important work meeting this afternoon. Thanks for pointing it out so tactfully and sparing my feelings; at least now I know I need to apply that concealer a little more liberally.”
“Dad, I’m hungry” or the ever-popular, “Dad, I have to poop” doesn’t mean we have 10 minutes to wrap up whatever we’re doing. Nope, a declaration like this from a child is fair warning that the meltdown is imminent if we don’t take immediate action.
Imagine how much simpler our lives would be if expectations from bosses, partners, and friends were so clear. We’d never be left guessing the underlying meaning of a conversation again, because the entire meaning would be right there on the surface.
Our work projects would all be prioritized correctly. The boss would simply say, “You’re not getting a raise this year if this one doesn’t get done,” so we’d drop everything else and get it done.
All those failed attempts at mind reading between men and women would be eliminated, too. Wouldn’t that be refreshing to actually know what our partners need from us in order to feel fulfilled in our relationships!
It really shouldn’t be such a pipe dream. We could just say what we’re thinking.
Maturity and adult social skills might even help us improve on the bluntness of children by stating things a little more tactfully without watering them down to the point of rendering them meaningless. Maybe it’s a tricky balance, but it’s not impossible. I think it’s called communication.
4. Forgive and really forget.
Watching children play while resisting the temptation to interfere when an argument develops between them can be quite enlightening. Generally, they act swiftly and decisively to serve whatever justice they’ve deemed appropriate, and then the disagreement is over.
If there’s any pouting, their short memories don’t allow it to linger for long. As we discussed, they’re too busy living in the present to dwell on what happened even five minutes ago.
Children certainly don’t hold grudges that ruin friendships for months or even years, as is so common in adult relationships. All is forgiven by bedtime and forgotten with the dawn of a new day.
We’d improve all our relationships by striving to end most disagreements with such definitive closure, whether we get our way or not. “Winning” the argument, whatever that means, might feel good in the moment, but the harm done to a friendship is almost never a trade worth making.
5. Get excited about something…anything.
Most adults are so damned boring. It’s like the life has been sucked right out of them and they’re zombies trudging through their days.
Maybe the lives they envisioned as kids aren’t the ones they got, and they really are existing now just to pay one bill after another. I’m not really sure, but it’s depressing to watch.
Little kids, on the other hand, get excited about anything. They run through stores and parking lots as their parents implore them to slow down, barely able to keep from bursting through their own skin.
Remember that miniscule bug on the sidewalk? Yeah, not exciting. Wrong—to a kid it was mesmerizing. They view everything with this sort of innocence and wonder, asking a thousand questions and being consumed by curiosity.
This attitude produces an important by-product as well: it breeds unbridled joy and laughter that are contagious. It’s why kids are fun to be around. It’s why we often say we feel more youthful and energized in their presence.
We become better, more interesting versions of ourselves when a little of this childlike excitement rubs off on us. Suddenly, we have more to share with the world. The zombie disappears and a real human being who has passion for life appears.
We’re not just the grumpy guy waiting in line at the supermarket, avoiding making eye contact with everyone around us as we tend to yet another obligation. We’re a person who begins to see more possibilities and opportunities to grow and learn.
When we’re excited about something, we have something to say. Sharing our passions for cooking or nature or reading or whatever gives us something we can use to do the one thing we all really want to do: connect with others.
I’ll admit, all this nicey-nice stuff is especially difficult for me. Life has beaten me down a bit, like it has for anyone who’s been around a few decades, and I’m jaded.
I have a bit of a short fuse and I get irritated with people rather easily. Heavy traffic and crowded stores and restaurants are a few of my biggest triggers.
If this sounds a little like you as well, maybe we should try conjuring our inner child to see things a little differently. Perhaps then we’ll begin to see friends where foes formerly stood, to be a little more present in our relationships, to say more of what we really mean, to let small slights go and move forward, and to connect with people by sharing our enthusiasm for bugs—or all the other amazing things this life has to offer.