Houston Kraft’s mom always told him to hug like he means it. She practiced kindness, and as with anything practiced often, it grew—in her heart and his. As she copes with cancer, her son has renewed his dedication to bring the seed she planted to fruition.
He has a unique career. It’s his job to be kind. It’s his job to spread kindness. It’s his job to help the next generation, in particular, to cultivate compassion.
Kraft works with schools to help them integrate lessons in kindness into their curriculum and general environment.
Fear drives many students, said Kraft—fear of rejection or failure, for example. Fear makes us selfish and prevents us from being kind. He tells students, “Fear is a feeling and love is a choice.”
A Young Girl Gives a Stranger a Hug
He gave a talk at his old middle school in Snohomish, Washington. A girl came up to him afterward and started to cry. She told him she comes from a good home, but she feels so much pressure to be perfect, to meet her parents’ high expectations.
Another girl standing nearby gave her a big hug. Kraft commented that it’s nice to have friends, but the girls said they didn’t know each other. The girl who gave the hug had stayed back to tell Kraft she thought what he said was awesome and to give him a high-five.
A teacher came up to Kraft after witnessing this exchange.
The teacher told him that it was good to see the girl who offered the hug interacting that way, because she was having a really rough time herself.
She comes from a challenging background; her parents have substance abuse problems, and they recently left her with her aunt and uncle. She has had a hard time trusting people and opening up.
“What a cool capacity we have as people, especially young people, to support each other even though our suffering is so different,” Kraft said. “Here’s this eighth-grade girl … and she can watch this girl who has a life she probably wishes she had and she can go over and have empathy and compassion and love and give her a hug, even though they’re total strangers, and make her feel loved and important and like her problems are just as valid as anyone’s problems.”
But, Kraft said, “This isn’t just about being nicer and giving more hugs.”
“This is about creating a world [in which people] fundamentally take care of each other in better, more profound ways.”
Schools Shouldn’t Foster Intelligence Without Character
Harvard University took a stand for kindness in schools this year. It gathered admissions deans from the nation’s top colleges to create a report encouraging a greater emphasis on character development and less emphasis on academics for college admissions. The report is titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good,” and Kraft is also working toward such a paradigm shift.
“The smartest kids, they work so hard in all these classes and they don’t have a lot of time along the way to build their emotional or character competencies,” Kraft said. “Kids who are competent, but don’t have character, are dangerous.”
“You look around the world and you see people who are really intelligent, really smart … who will use that to manipulate people and use that for their own benefit at the expense of other people,” he said. “Compassion plus kindness—that’s the winning mixture. That’s what makes the world a better place.”
How to Incorporate Kindness in Schools
In physical education class, maybe students could do yard work occasionally to improve the public space while exercising, Kraft suggested. In English class, students could develop a vocabulary of kindness or discuss morals in books in a way that relates to their own lives.
In science there are lessons in kindness too. For example, in the 1960s Dr. Donald Hatch Andrews at Johns Hopkins University noted that when we lift a finger, the movement creates a chain reaction that literally affects our entire universe. Everything is interconnected at an atomic and subatomic level.
This, Kraft said, is a good example of the science of influence. Small actions have big impacts.
Walking the Walk
Kraft said his job continually helps him become kinder. “Kids can tell pretty quickly if you’re authentic or not,” he said.
“I get reminded every day. … I’d like to think slowly but surely … I’ve started to be a slightly more patient person, I’ve started to work on being better at my vocabulary of gratitude and my vocabulary of kindness, I’ve started to grow in my ability or my desire to be selfless and to engage in meaningful service in the world.”
Throughout his school days, Kraft’s mom wrote notes to put in his lunch everyday. The more she wrote kind things, the more she thought kind things, Kraft said, and the kinder she became.
“The more I talk about [kindness], hopefully, the more I practice myself,” Kraft said. “It’s a learned skill; we can grow, through practice, in empathy.”
“We have the capacity to improve at so many things,” he said. “Why would we not choose to get better at love?”
See more about Kraft’s initiatives and public speaking on his website, HoustonKraft.com