Teach the Importance of Small Acts

“Sow a thought and you reap an act; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” – Charles Reade –

In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks wrote, “You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind. You are making it more likely that you will desire the right things and execute the right actions.”

Small acts seem doable. One small act leads to two. Two can become ten. Ten can become one hundred, five hundred, a thousand. “A thousand small acts.”

As I write this, one of the big stories in the news is the safe landing of a Southwest jet after its engine exploded in flight. News reporters speak in awe of the pilot’s calm as she talked to air traffic controllers and piloted her jet to safety. That calm and skill did not happen overnight. Tammie Jo Shults had trained and flown for years, making a thousand small decisions that gave her the mental, emotional, and physical muscle to bring her plane down safely and save hundreds of lives.

The mental, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical muscle needed to make major moral choices – and make them wisely – rarely just appears the moment we need it. That strength develops through exercising our moral muscle many times a day through a thousand small acts.

• Teach and model good manners at home and in the classroom, starting with “please” and “thank you.” Very young children can learn “please” and “thank you” in sign language even before they can talk.

• Teach and model the small tasks that make your home or classroom run smoothly, with everyone pitching in – picking up, cleaning, organizing.

• Teach kids how to compromise, advises Michele Borba. “You give up a little, the other person gives up a little.” Model compromising. When you compromise with children, point it out: “Let’s compromise. I’ll give a little on this, and you give a little.”

• Help kids figure out ways to get back in control when they lose it. And model ways that work for you when you’re about to lose it. Michele Borba suggests taking a walk, listening to soothing music, thinking of a peaceful place, deep breathing, stretching, or shooting baskets. When one of my grandsons was struggling with anger, I guided him through a process I call, “Half It.” HALF is an acronym for Hands, Abdomen, Lungs, Face. When we’re tense with worry, anger, or stress, our hands often curl into fists. Our abdomen often tightens or feels jittery. Our breathing becomes shallow. Our face feels it too: clenched jaws, a scowl, narrowed eyes. So take that tension and HALF it:

Hands, relax. (Shake them if you need to.)
Abdomen relax. (Soften your belly.)
Lungs relax. (Breathe deeply through your nose.Exhale slowly through your mouth.)
Face relax. (Unclench your teeth and jaw. Raise your eyebrows. Blink and refocus.)

Still tense? HALF it again. And again. And again if necessary. Even young children can do this, although if they’re too young to spell, the acronym won’t mean anything. You can coach them, “Hands, belly, breath, face.”

• Ask, “Who can we help today?” I was assisting in our local botanical garden’s “Tuesday for Tots” program on the day that they were making construction paper trees to celebrate the Jewish day of Tu B’Shevat. One four-year-old asked for a second piece of paper. “I want to make one for my sister,” he said. “She couldn’t come today.” It was a small gift, but a very important one. As you go through your day with children, periodically challenge them with, “Who could we give one to? Who could we make one for? Who can we honor today? Who can we cheer up today? How?”

Sometimes small acts have big results. Bend life toward goodness. Bend each day toward goodness. Bend each hour toward goodness.

Adapted from The Gift of an Inner Moral Compass © Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Top image by Victoria Borodinova from Pexels