Everyone knows what it’s like to try to work on a school project when one person in the group doesn’t do any work. And Whitney Fleming was just trying to spare her daughters the same pain. Again.

Whitney Fleming

As the mom of three wrote on her blog, Playdates on Fridays, one of her 13-year-old twins had already had a bad experience working with one of the girls in her class.

So when her daughter announced they were doing another project together, and were behind in finishing it, Fleming was understandably annoyed:

“Why would you partner with her again?” I stormed at my daughter. “Don’t you remember how she didn’t finish her work the last time?”

My twin girls looked at each other nervously. For the first time in years, they were in a class together, an elective that both despised. Minutes before they needed to catch the bus, they came to me because of a group project that needed to be completed the next day.

“I know,” one explained. “I mean, I finished the whole thing for that language arts assignment by myself last year when she was my partner, but Mom, we didn’t know what to do.”

Fleming’s first thought was of her daughters’ grades. And the fact that they hadn’t done anything to avoid the inevitable: do the other girl’s work or face a bad grade. She wrote:

“What do you mean?” I exclaimed, trying to keep calm. “Did the teacher form the groups? If you guys get a bad grade in an elective, I’m going to be angry. You have to speak to the teacher about this. You have to learn from your experience.”

Fleming was ready to continue with the lecture about consequences. But when her daughters explained why they had partnered with the girl — even knowing they might have to do more work — she realized that there was another value in play:

“She was sitting alone, Mom. In the corner. Her entire table stood up and partnered with other people, and she looked so sad. The teacher didn’t even notice that she wasn’t in a group.”

[…] Her sister took over: “We formed our group of three, and we looked over and saw her sitting by herself. She was looking down at her hands, and no one was even paying attention, so we asked the teacher if we could make it a group of four instead. We just hoped she would do the work this time.”

As a mom, Fleming has spent a lot of time talking about the importance of reaching out and showing kindness to others.

Whitney Fleming

What’s more, she has tried to teach her daughters that a moment of compassion can make a huge impact on someone. Fleming told Dearly:

“We talk a lot about what it feels like to feel alone and not included in our house. We’ve discussed teen suicide, and I found a statistic that showed how many people avert a suicide attempt just because someone reached out to them or did something kind. We talk about mass shootings and how the perpetrators often act normal on the outside, but on the inside are often tormented by feelings of loneliness and despair.”

Combating those feelings of loneliness and isolation involves more than the bare minimum. In fact, Fleming believes there’s a real difference between kindness and simply being “nice.” She wrote:

If your kid doesn’t pick on other students or doesn’t get in trouble in class or doesn’t make fun of the boy who can’t run the mile, then your kid is probably nice, too. Being nice often involves what you don’t do.

Being nice is a relatively simple process.

Kindness, however. Well, that is hard. Doing kind things requires sacrifice and selflessness, something in short supply nowadays. It means telling the new kid he can sit with you on the bus. […] It means standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. It even means including the girl that doesn’t always finish her work because no one else would.

Fleming recognizes that being kind means standing out in a way that can be difficult for children. And because she wants to raise kind children, she also wants to acknowledge when her daughters go the extra mile to show kindness.

She told Dearly:

“Our family motto is you can change the trajectory of someone’s day by just doing one act of kindness. I think more teens do these sorts of things than we think, but many are embarrassed to talk about it. We need to start showing kindness as a thing of courage instead of a sign of weakness.”

Confronted by evidence that her daughters were following her lessons, Fleming backed off of her lecture about grades and consequences.

Whitney Fleming

When her daughters apologized, explaining that there was a good chance that the girl wouldn’t finish the work and their grade would suffer, Fleming stopped them:

“Don’t be sorry,” I replied. “I’m sorry. You did the right thing. I don’t care about your grade.”

“Really?” two voices shot back across to me.

“Well, wait. I totally care about your grades. But I care more about your acting kind. And what you did by including that girl, well, that is about as kind as you can get.”

In the end, one of her daughters did have to stay after school in order to finish the project on time, but Fleming didn’t ask them about the grade.

Because as far as she was concerned, they had just aced a harder test.

That doesn’t mean that she fawned all over her twins for doing the right thing. As Fleming told Dearly, they’re at the age when they don’t enjoy that anyway:

“I think they know my expectation is they should try and do as well in school as possible, but that we’re going to do it in a way that doesn’t take anyone else down. We talk a lot about going to bed each night proud of the way we lived each day, so I’m glad we all could do just that.”

The best part was the fact that they had absorbed the lessons about kindness and were now making the right choices at school — even when it was difficult. As Fleming told Dearly:

“I’ve talked the talk, and now they’re walking the walk.”

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