When Michael Lloyd-White received an unexpected phone call from Singapore in 2011, he realised he’d connected with something big. “Who are you?” the voice on the line asked. “My name’s Michael and I’m a dad,” Lloyd-White responded.
The call was from the World Kindness Movement’s General Secretariat. They wanted to know more about the man who, within three months, had spearheaded over 400 kindness events in schools across New South Wales.
Lloyd-White, whose daughters attended Double Bay Public School in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, had noticed that while the school’s motto was “Kindness and Courtesy”, parental behaviour often sent a different message. “People discriminate for the simplest things,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to be race or religion, it could be an everyday thing like a postcode.”
So he proposed a simple solution: that the school reconnect with their motto by celebrating World Kindness Day. They invited neighbouring schools to participate and on November 13, 2010, around 3,000 people showed up to Sydney’s first kindness event: a remarkable achievement for a school with just 300 pupils. It was more than a tokenistic feat. The day got both kids and their parents looking beyond themselves and actively making connections, person to person.
Kindness was on the agenda – but not everywhere. Over the next few months Lloyd-White noticed a growing number of worrying stories in the papers: bullied teenagers committing suicide; a schoolboy in Queensland, killed while trying to prevent another from self-harm. “My kids were only little,” Lloyd-White remembers, “but I thought, ‘In five years they’ll be in high school. Are they going to be greeted by a Mean Girls culture?’”
It’s a concern shared by many parents, but are they part of the problem? In the US, a recent study from Harvard University’s Richard Weissbourd, psychologist from the Graduate School of Education, identified a significant gap between the values parents think they are instilling and the messages children receive. Earlier studies had found that parents and teachers thought they were teaching kids to prioritise concern for others. However, Weissbourd’s study found around 80% of kids said “their parents were more concerned about achievement or happiness than caring for others”.
High achievement and happiness do matter, but when such aspirations push aside ethical values, the cost is high. “Young people are at greater risk of many forms of harmful behaviour, including being cruel, disrespectful and dishonest,” Weissbourd and his cohorts write. In Australia, up to one in four young people will experience some form of bullying during their school years.
Having tapped into the scope of the problem, Lloyd-White set to action, and his first task was to get World Kindness Day on the school calendar. Each participating school was asked to appoint Goodwill Ambassadors to initiate kindness events and foster grassroots engagement – an important step to ensure its visibility. It was a smart move, as the 400 kindness events attest. Since then, Sydney has hosted the World Kindness Movement General Assembly with support from the New South Wales Department of Education. Lloyd-White also joined the World Movement, and the General Secretariat office moved to Sydney.
With a background in various executive roles – from hospitality recruitment to establishing franchises – Lloyd-White’s energy, adaptability and macro-view of the world are helping to drive the cause on. Under his stewardship, opportunities for kindness abound. There’s the Kindness Card, collecting goodwill stories as it’s passed around the world; community-initiated kindness flash-mobs and the University of Sydney World Kindness Sports Scholarship, which is awarded to athletes for their record of citizenship. In schools, ‘Class Acts of Kindness’ offer every student the opportunity to lead and participate in goodwill initiatives year-round. Then there’s the real-life ‘Captain Kindness’, whose mission is to “complete one act of kindness every day, or he loses his powers”.
Involving the entire class is a way of fostering cultural change and “keeping kindness on the agenda”, says Lloyd-White. “The kids organising this might be the victims of bullying. Some of them might be the bullies and some of them might be the bystanders.” With this in mind, how can society raise caring, engaged children?
The Harvard researchers have developed the Making Caring Common project, five strategies to encourage kindness in children, which include: prioritising caring for others, providing opportunities to practice, expanding their circle of concern, being a role model, and guiding them through destructive behavior.
Back in Sydney, Lloyd-White’s work has flowed into his daily life. “The blinkers come off. You look outside your circle and you’ll notice somebody standing alone,” he says. Society has hit a tipping point, he says, describing a future where schools Australia-wide have joined the kindness cause. “It starts with the words, ‘You can’t play with us’. My hope is there will be a voice that speaks up and says, ‘Yes she can.’”