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Why parents need to teach middle-schoolers kindness, from the author of ‘Wonder’

If you haven’t read the book (which just hit its fifth anniversary and has now sold 5 million copies) with your middle-grade kids, this might be a good time. The novel will have you rooting for Auggie Pullman, a boy with severe facial differences, and for the hard-earned friends who soon stop seeing him as different. They just see him as Auggie. If you’re like me, you’ll also read it and think: “Okay, how can I make sure my kids grow up to be the good guys?”

And if that book might be too advanced for your children, you’re in luck: Palacio has a new picture book for younger readers coming out in March called “We’re All Wonders.

Palacio spends many of her days speaking with schoolchildren and teachers about kindness, and has recently started interviewing kids about what they think kindness means. “Kids are so amazing,” she said recently. “I think they will make the world into a much better place.”

As part of the book’s anniversary celebration, Palacio has launched a #ChooseKindValentine effort that encourages social media users to be a part of a kindness chain. The idea is to do something nice for someone, then post that act of kindness and tag someone else. “Kindness is infectious,” Palacio said. “It grows exponentially, and eventually, it always comes back to you as well.”

I spoke with Palacio about Wonder, which certainly illustrates that infectious kindness, and how parents need to remember that teaching kindness shouldn’t stop at the sandbox. It must also be taught when they are older, especially during middle school and beyond.

How did the idea of Wonder first come about?

I was with both of my sons in front of an ice cream store. My younger son, 3, started to cry because we were near this little girl who had severe craniofacial differences. At the time, I didn’t react the way I wish I had. I was so fearful his reaction would hurt her, I tried to leave the scene as quickly as possible. Then I realized she may think it was because I didn’t want him to see her. Sometimes you just don’t know how to respond as well-meaning as you mean to be. It was that situation that prompted me to think what it must be like to be this child and this child’s mother. I started writing that night, more as a meditation, and I just kept writing.

When you started to write the book, did you set out to write about kindness?

I didn’t know it would be an overarching theme. But my older son was going into the sixth grade. I was around middle-schoolers a lot. We spend so much time [when they are little] teaching sandbox rules, we spend a lot of time worrying about these little moral codes. But by the time they get into middle school, we forget to remind them. They need it then more than ever. We spend more time on “Did you do your homework?” So it occurred to me that these kids need to be reminded how to be kind to one another. They need us to inspire them to be kind to one another. There’s so much talk in movies and on TV where meanness passes for normal in middle school, like middle school is just something you need to just get through. I don’t know why we have to accept that cruelty passes as normal. So I wanted a book that reminded people it’s okay to be kind, it’s not a sign of weakness. And it’s not just about not being a bully, it’s about showing empathy and compassion.

5 ways to raise kids to be kind

So how does a parent raise a Jack Will [the character in the book who becomes one of Auggie’s best friends]?

He had to be pushed into being Jack Will. His first impulse was not ‘Hey, I want to go play with that kid.’ But his mother took the time to talk to him and not mandate it, but inspire him. That’s where adults really have so much impact on kids. I always thought it was strange when adults told me, ‘Oh, she doesn’t listen to me anymore’ and their child is a preteen. They hear it. They may roll their eyes and do their preteen stuff, but they’re hearing us. With Jack Will, it set him straight. Contrast that with Julian’s [the bully in the book] parents, who were so intent on giving him a perfect experience, they were blinded to the fact that he wasn’t a kind child. And they weren’t able to instruct him to be kind. We all need to remember that we’re raising our own kids, but we’re helping to raise other kids, too. Even if our kids are socially adept and having a great time in school, we should be aware of the kids who are struggling and inspire our kids to reach out as well.

This book is for middle grades. Tell me about the new picture book. For the last several years, I’ve had teachers suggest I do a picture book version of Wonder. The message would be wonderful for younger kids. I took the theme of being different and being a wonder and kindness and created a story around a little boy, Auggie Pullman, who uses his imagination to deal with the hostility he receives because of his looks.

What do you think of the current situation in America, in regards to kindness and what our kids are experiencing? One of the big tragedies of this election cycle has been just how exposed kids have been to the absolute devastating cruelty and meanness of what passed for ordinary politics and continues to pass. The lack of respect, lack of dignity, the lack of any shame about lying, all the things we teach our kids not to be. Kids learn what they live. So if they see the president of the United States mocking a disabled person, or an entire political organization singling out a culture or religion, they internalize that. My hope is that a book like “Wonder,” and any other book out there that can undo the harm that this election cycle has done, will at least mitigate what has happened.

How can parents help them get through the current reality? Now more than ever, parents need to step up. They talk about sanctuary cities and states, but we need sanctuary schools and homes. We can protect ourselves and our kids from the ugliness and cruelty that passes for normal and make sure we provide a little haven of our own. A haven of kindness.

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