Emily Dickinson is known for her great poetry and her shyness. While she rarely left her home, especially later in life, she adored her nieces and nephews and wrote often to family and friends. Her poetry includes timeless topics such as nature, death, hope, and kindness. One of her poems I share with elementary school children in the Respect Program is:
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
There are two themes here to discuss with children. First, that acts of kindness are important. Second, that kindness makes life meaningful. We all want things to happen that don’t occur. Sometimes our team doesn’t win, we don’t place in a competition, or we don’t have as much money has we wish we did. While these are disappointments, they do not mean that our life is without meaning. There will be other competitions, new goals to strive for, and (no matter what) opportunities every day to do some small act of kindness that proves we “shall not live in vain.”
Small act of kindness in Emily Dickinson’s life were not just about helping others, but about giving her life purpose. For example, she baked cookies and prepared other goodies for her nieces, nephews, and the other neighborhood children. After cooking them, she would take the baked goods up to her bedroom, on the second story of her house. There, she would place them in a basket with a rope tied to it. Next, she would wave to the children playing outside and, as they came near the house, she would lower the basket with the rope so they could enjoy the food.
The poem above and this story are a part of the Respect Program because they provide an accessible introduction to a poetic genius, and a reminder that small acts of love leave a legacy all their own.
Activities for Parents and Teachers
Talk about the poem with your children and ask them to name small acts of kindness they can perform, like saying “Hi” to a shy student at school or listening to a friend talk about something they love to do. Ask them: “Does being kind improve your mood?” or “Does being kind to someone make you feel different about how your day is going?”
Read the book Poetry for Young People, Emily Dickinson with your children. This collection includes the poem above as well as some poems that describe various animals (without mentioning the animals’ names). Have your child or class guess what the animal is in each poem. The answers are upside down in the book (on each poem’s page). This activity can build children’s confidence as well as support reading comprehension skills.
Questions for Journaling or Discussion:
What are some small acts of kindness that you are glad to have done for other people?
What small acts of kindness can you do tomorrow to help others?
What gives your life meaning?
How can a kind act for another person improve your well-being?