Kindness through the ages

Ellie with our “Angel” gifts in 2017

Having started doing “happy tasks” when Ellie was one year old, we’ve seen her involvement change dramatically over the past six years. It was exciting when she started coming up with ideas of her own. (One of her first was to “leave a penny to help the animals” at the zoo.) And it’s been fun seeing her ideas mature as she has.

Every year at Christmas, we “adopt” a child through the Salvation Army Angels program. (You can learn more about the program here.) We always pick a girl who’s the same age as Ellie, and we encourage Ellie to help us pick out presents she might like. This year, shopping for our girl—Raina—was the most fun it’s ever been. (And yes, after I narrowed down the options by gender and age, I definitely picked this girl because she shares the name of the main character in my next novel.)

We were given a list of things Raina likes and wants, so Ellie and I entered Meijer last Friday with our sights set on doll accessories. Having found multiple possibilities, Ellie spread all the choices out around her on the floor and proceeded to deliberate on which ones Raina would like best.

Watching Ellie give so much thought to gifts for someone else (gifts she would be happy to get herself) filled my heart with joy. I ended up spending more than I normally do, partly because it’s wonderful to imagine a girl who doesn’t have a lot being surprised and delighted on Christmas morning, but also because of how gratifying it was seeing Ellie’s excitement.

I don’t think good deeds need to be selfless; in fact, I think people are more likely to be kind if they get something in return. I love having fun with Ellie as we complete our happy tasks, and I hope the fact that she enjoys it instills in her a desire to continue giving back as she grows up.

5 free ways to incite a kindness revolution

1. Bestow some compliments. In Year 1, our goal was to compliment five people. This year, we declared January to be “compliment month,” each of us taking any and all opportunities to shower others with compliments, from a stranger’s coat that caught my eye to a friend’s jewelry that Ellie admired to a colleague’s work Shawn was grateful for.

2. Leave a friendly message. Every year since we came up with the idea in Year 2, we’ve written a happy message in sidewalk chalk in our neighborhood. At first, I wrote the words and Ellie supplied the pictures. This year she put chalk to asphalt, and while I encouraged her to keep it short and sweet, that girl has a lot of words, which started and ended on multiple lines because she ran out of space. I’ll be honest: it wasn’t the easiest thing to decipher, but as we walked around the pond and eventually saw two teenage girls stop and read the message, the pride and happiness on Ellie’s face reminded me that kindness is as good for the giver as for the receiver.

3. Acknowledge pretty decorations. For those who don’t know me, I hate being cold. But I love Christmas. So it was with mixed feelings that I tasked us with taking a walk some December evening in order to put a note in the mailbox of whichever house we thought had the best lights display. Imagining someone opening our card and picturing the smile on their face made me (almost) forget about the weather.

4. Donate books. The longer we do this, the more we each discover our favorite tasks to repeat. Every year, Shawn chooses to donate books to the library. We’re a family of readers; we love books. So it’s satisfying to take some we have read and enjoyed but are willing to part with and give them a new home for new readers to enjoy.

5. Create a traveling story with friends. When I was a kid, my dad and I would make up stories together. I would say a sentence or two, then he would add a bit before giving me another turn. We invited a few of our friends’ kids to help us create a traveling story by mail. Ellie kicked it off with an opening paragraph, then we sent it to our first coauthor with instructions for whom to pass it onto next. After three rounds, an amusing story rife with owls, trolls, birds, and glow-in-the-dark sheep made its way back to us.

Random acts of kindness: how we began

Toward the end of 2013, I was starting to realize that Ellie would have a lot of stuff in her life. Shawn and I were pretty sure we didn’t want more kids, and we’re both only children ourselves, which meant all the love, affection, and buying power from two sets of grandparents plus other family members would be concentrated on her.

This was especially true at Christmas, when each day brought her closer to an influx of toys to add to the pile she already had. Not wanting to deny her the pleasure of presents, I wondered if we could embrace her good fortune while also establishing a family tradition of giving back.

Every year, we hang on our wall the same fabric countdown calendar I used to anticipate my childhood Christmases. What if we borrowed the countdown idea but changed the payoff?

Starting December 1st, in addition to marking time until The Day of Many Gifts, we would think of something to do for someone else—a way to brighten their day or lighten their load. Once the holiday season ended, we would have 24 “happy tasks,” as we’ve come to call them, to complete over the next 12 months.

Now, more than five years later, with nearly 100 unique random (or not so random) acts of kindness under our belts (plus many we repeat from year to year), this tradition is one of my proudest parenting accomplishments. Ellie is an active participant, coming up with her own ideas and helping execute nearly all of them, and the habits this endeavor has instilled in her shine through her actions—from leaving her money for other kids to find to wanting to donate her hair (more on that in a future post).

And because this has become a regular part of our lives, it seems only natural that it should make its way into my writing. With Dell, I proudly set her treatment in Nationwide Children’s Hospital, a recipient of many of our happy tasks. One of my new projects is a story about a 16-year-old girl named Rae, who is struggling to overcome a major loss and needs the healing power of kindness.

As part of this blog, I’ll periodically feature posts about random acts of kindness that Shawn, Ellie, and I commit—the Happy Task Series. Please check back, and feel free to take our ideas and spread some joy yourself. Leave comments too with suggestions—the world can’t have too much kindness.