Caring Shouldn’t Be Cute

Five years ago, on a warm summer day in Pasadena, California, I took a group of my elementary students to the Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast meeting. We were selling books written and illustrated by kids in order to raise money for water wells in Ethiopia, and this breakfast allowed every attendee to get up to a microphone for twenty seconds to “pitch” a product or service. Students decided for themselves what they would say and scattered throughout the room so they could engage the other attendees in conversation about the clean water crisis.

One by one, the kids went to the microphone and gave their pitch. For some it was a quick sound bite about the need for global access to clean water. For others it was a background statement about the organization and what they were trying to accomplish. All together a coherent picture evolved about kids writing books and selling them to raise awareness about and money for girls who had to walk miles to get water for their families. Packed with more than a hundred coffee-sloshing, business-oriented adults, the room lit up with the vibrancy of youthful idealism and hope.

Then it was Ronald’s turn. Ronald was an eight, maybe nine-year-old, diminutive black kid with a smile that could charm the Grim Reaper. He approached the microphone lugging a big chair to boost his sightline just over the podium.

“My name is Ronald and I go to YouthInkwell and I’m changing the world. What are YOUR kids doing?”

And just like that, he climbed down and dragged his chair back to the table.

The room erupted in laughter. It really was cute. Adorable even. The sass. The precocious energy of a child who thinks he can truly change the world. Come on. We love that stuff.

There is something about watching our kids put their hearts on the line to fight for what they think is right. Lemonade stands for tsunami victims. Selling bracelets for Darfur. In our jaded adult minds we know these efforts will likely have little impact, but we encourage them anyway because… well, because they’re sweet. And as a society we convince ourselves that we want our kids to care, that compassion is a positive quality.

Yet, as an educator, I know that the 20-second proclamation of leadership, the Sunday afternoon lemonade stand, the $5 bracelet—none of these efforts alone can create compassionate leaders. The act of caring must be rooted into daily life. And so, if we really want to create compassionate leaders, it’s time to ask some tough questions.

How do we create an educational environment that seriously addresses social justice? How do we follow-up “sweet,” meaningful acts of caring with opportunities for critical thinking and discussion of issues? How do we create problem solvers who do more than just talk about the problems or throw money at them? How do we raise our kids not just to care, but to care well?

It has to start with us.

At the end of the Chamber meeting that day there was a series of raffles. A local realtor had donated some bottles of wine for the occasion. All participants’ names were put into the hat, and sure enough, Ronald’s was chosen. The room erupted in laughter for a second time when it was announced, for obvious reasons, that another name would have to be selected. Hearing only that he would not receive a prize, Ronald exploded into tears and locked himself in the restaurant’s broom closet. In the mingling after the meeting, I became aware of the collective consensus that the only thing cuter than Ronald’s speech was his response to the seemingly grave injustice he’d suffered.

To some adults, even injustice can be cute.

Perhaps that’s part of the problem.