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Negotiating how we respond to people can be a tricky business.
For example, standing up to offer your seat to a pregnant woman in the MRT only to get turned down because she is getting off at the next stop. Or getting stared at when you didn’t offer your seat to an elderly passenger boarding the train simply because you didn’t see them.
Making quick assessments on what is expected, and what we should do is a constant, unconscious activity for most of us.
Sometimes we get it right and get a smile and a nod for our efforts, which leaves us feeling good. Other times, we judge wrongly.
It’s not so bad when we miss out on a chance to be kind, like giving up a seat on the MRT, but what if it’s the opposite scenario — when we call out someone who behaves badly, then realise later that they had a valid reason for doing what they did.
When that happens, we often respond with a “How was I to know?”, even as an unspoken thought.
It is easier when there are visual cues for us to make our assessment — for example, we don’t need to be reminded to be mindful of people in wheelchairs, using crutches, or who have some visible physical challenge.
But what if their needs are less obvious? What if a stranger behaves in a way that seems inappropriate, selfish, clueless, and even disruptive, but gives no outward indication of special needs. How far would you give them or their caregivers the benefit of the doubt?
For example, a recent forum contributor wrote about how she told off a teenage boy who was loud and disruptive on an MRT train. The mother of the boy then apologised and told her that her son has special needs. The writer quipped in her letter, “How was I to know?”, and suggested that persons with less visible needs should wear a tag or identifier so that others would extend kindness to them.
It is interesting that the Caring SG Commuters Committee launched a campaign in March last year where those with invisible special needs can request for a card or lanyard to show that they needed assistance.
Such suggestions have been raised over the years. Initially, I thought that these suggestions are creative and useful in helping commuters with special needs or invisible medical conditions get a seat on public transport.
When should we show kindness?
However, when I considered the matter more deeply, I realised that there is a slightly troubling foundation to this type of request.
The foundation is: “I won’t extend kindness unless I know you have a valid reason to deserve it.”
I’m sure no one actually says this out loud, and many won’t admit that we think this way. But the first step to becoming a more gracious nation is to challenge how we think.
Let me explain.
Consider a simple childhood scenario: Children playing at a playground or in a schoolyard.
Enter a protective parent, who says: “Don’t share your toys with that boy, he’s not playing nicely”, “Don’t be friends with that classmate, they don’t behave well in class” or “Let’s play somewhere else, these children are not good company”.
Parents, in a bid to protect our children from learning bad behaviour, can sometimes overly emphasise the need for children to be selective in their actions towards their peers.
We tell them to distance themselves, “not be friends with so-and-so”, or to “beware of someone”, once they assess (often superficially) that that person is “not good company”.
Now, when these children grow up into adults, they perpetuate this cautious navigation of social interactions. They observe with a critical eye and assess whether someone “deserves” a friendly approach, or should be held at a distance, or even “needs” to be told off.
But how about a new approach: Instead of jumping to conclusions, could we offer others the benefit of the doubt, and be kind anyway?
Kindness is innate
Most people like to think of themselves as kind. It is a character trait we can choose to develop in ourselves as adults and nurture in our children.
But if we allow kindness to be shown only to those we deem deserving, we are operating from a small-minded, self-seeking, almost hypocritical posture.
Every one of us would know of someone who would be super kiasu and super calculative at the same time. I know of one auntie who would serve her own children the best and biggest portions at a party, leaving others rolling their eyes at her behaviour.
They do not seem to understand that being kind in a calculated fashion to only those you love doesn’t make you a kind person. On the contrary, real generosity is being uninhibited in showing kindness and being giving towards anyone and everyone around you.
This is what we as Singaporeans need to aspire to.
We should show graciousness and kindness simply because we are gracious and kind people at heart — not for personal gain, nor for when we decide that someone “deserves it”.
These traits cannot and should not be displayed selectively. We should not let the “type of person” or “type of need” be a determinant of whether we behave kindly or not.
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How do you deal with a stranger with special needs?
So let’s go back to the MRT scenario: How would we know whether a child has special needs or if they are just ill-disciplined?
Sometimes we can’t know. And maybe knowing isn’t the priority.
That’s where I challenge all of us to be greater. Extending unconditional kindness, even when we risk looking like a fool to others, can make so much difference.
It makes a difference to the persons with special needs or an invisible medical condition, and it makes a huge difference to their parents and caregivers.
You may not receive an immediate thanks, but let me assure you, one less judgemental passer-by is a huge relief for the overwhelmed parent of a special-needs child or someone with less visible needs.
In my coaching experience with ADHD families, many parents share that they avoid taking their child to the shopping mall or out to eat, because they never know when a meltdown would happen, and they would feel embarrassed by the judging looks of people around them.
And this hurts their confidence as a parent, sometimes causing them to be angry at their own child, which does not help them manage the child’s ADHD.
I often wonder if more of us consistently acted out of generosity and unconditional kindness to others around us, we would have fewer parents fearful of being embarrassed or feeling judged when they can’t control their children’s behaviour.
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Sadly, there may be some of us who might even think that parents of children with special needs should keep their children at home and away from public places.
This is wrong.
This response comes out of an inability to share space with those who deal with real, difficult-to-articulate struggles that wearing a tag doesn’t alleviate.
Let’s start to be the society that we hope Singapore can be.
That’s because the more we give others the benefit of the doubt, judging others or protecting our interests would become the rarity instead of the norm!
Be the change you want to see
To spread kindness regardless of awareness, here are three tips to begin your personal growth towards being part of a kind society.
If in doubt, be kind. Everyone can do with a little extra kindness even if they don’t have a reason to deserve it.
If that kindness reaps unexpected negativity, It’s okay because I’ve done my part.
I will be kind because I am kind.
That said, being kind does not mean being naïve and setting yourself up to be taken advantage of. We need to be discerning in order to carefully consider our response. Prudence, especially in this day and age of scammers, is still key.
Just remember that it does not cost us much to give a kind word, show a kind response or conversely, refrain from making an unkind gesture.
Sometimes, even with our best efforts, abuse or disappointments can still happen. I believe that the fear of this should not stop us from being a kind person to our peers, friends and family, and even strangers!