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An online troll showed me why we should teach kindness

A project where children across Glasgow are compiling ‘Kindness Books’ shows that there is hope for making

What an online bully taught me about kindness

This week, within a few hours, I found myself the subject of both the harshest, most personal attack and some of the loveliest endorsements I have ever received online.

After attending the launch of Glasgow as the first Kindness City – a project involving the deployment of a “Kindness Book” into every primary classroom in the city, in which children are being encouraged to immortalise acts of kindness – a number of people I know well and have worked with closely were incredibly kind about my involvement with the initiative on social media. And, in a way that made my face blush to quite an unattractive shade of pink, about me as a person. They did not need to be nice and yet they chose to be.

What made this stand out even more was something that happened only a few hours later, when, entirely out of the blue, someone I’d never met and had never had any personal dealings with attacked me in quite a personal way on a social media platform. In the first conversation we ever had, and literally two sentences in, he launched into a rant, calling me superficial, shallow and a liar.

I knew, of course, that it wasn’t actually about me at all, and was probably born out of some deep frustration with life generally – but still, it hurt. Mostly, because it didn’t just feel unjustified, it was also entirely unnecessary. He had gone out of his way to be hurtful, and I simply couldn’t see why.

At the Kindness City launch that morning, we had talked about our impression that it had become all too common for people, including children, to be incredibly harsh to one another and less and less willing to find common ground or to compromise. Is this a cycle that can be stopped? Or do we just resign ourselves to the fact that we now live in a harsher world, particularly online? And in a political environment where extreme views and positions are becoming increasingly commonplace and acceptable – or, at least, it feels that way to me.

I don’t think things need to be this way, and the education system is already waking up to that realisation, too. The ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) movement is an example, as is the focus, particularly in Glasgow, on educational institutions wanting to be “nourishing”. Colleges are also going out of their way to ensure students are being taken care of – offering parcels of food and essentials to those who otherwise might not be able to sustain themselves is only one example among dozens that I’ve reported on in recent times.

Don’t get me wrong, sharing a story of a kind act with your peers in primary school does not guarantee that you will turn into a kinder and more understanding adult. But using the Kindness Book would surely sharpen your awareness of such acts. You might look out for them more. You might even aspire to be kind yourself in order to be thought of as someone who deserved a mention.

The thousands of children in Glasgow who will now go through that process will have this advantage over all of us. The project will also help to make sure kindness is a focus for teachers and other staff in the city’s schools. There was even some talk of them working together on Kindness Books themselves.

Wouldn’t it be great if these became commonplace in every school and college in Scotland? If we just decided that, along with our great achievements as engineering, art or maths students, our acts of kindness were also worth recording as a matter of course?

It is easy to view being kind as “just another thing” in times of significant workload and job pressures. But we all know how big an impact even a small “How are you?” or “Can I help you with that?” can have on our day. So let’s at least try and give that kindness thing a go. Just be a little bit nicer this week. It’s really not that hard.

@JBelgutay

This article originally appeared in the 10 May 2019 issue under the headline “An online troll showed me the importance of teaching kindness”