Why I Don’t Think Random Acts of Kindness are all that Great

A few weeks ago I wrote a response to the shootings in Sandy Hook for the Atlantic (The Importance of Teaching Kindness at a Very Young Age) in which I called upon parents to teach their children kindness as a proactive response against the violence and death of December 14th. Around the same time, unbeknownst to me when I wrote the article, was a call for people to practice “26 random acts of kindness” in honor of the 26 teachers and students who died.

I’m sure that the experience of practicing those 26 acts was positive and meaningful, both for the one giving kindness and the one receiving it. But solitary random acts of kindness don’t ask nearly enough of us.

If I go to New York City and see a homeless person, I often buy him or her a hot dog or give some money with a warm smile. I try to go out of my way if I see an elderly person who needs help. I hold the door for others. And I hope all these things contribute to making these people’s days a little brighter, but they really take nothing out of me. If anything, they just succeed in making me feel good about myself and making other people think I’m a good person.

The type of kindness I’m thinking about is sustained and intentional. It’s the kindness of seeing the kid who is sitting alone in the lunchroom, and risking your own social capital to sit down beside him. Day after day after day. It’s the kindness of offering not only to help your elderly neighbor get the mail, but then taking time to listen to her stories. Again and again and again.

This type of kindness asks a lot. Time. Energy. Status. I don’t think random acts of kindness stand much chance of changing the world. But costly kindness could change everything.

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About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. Richard A Imgrund says:

    When did those idiotic bumper stickers start showing up? Twenty-five years ago? First thing I told my children when I saw one while driving is “Kindness is not random (by chance), and beauty is not senseless.”

  2. I think this piece is great but doesn’t go far enough. I’ve spent years as a volunteer in soup kitchens that serve lunch or dinner to people who are poor and/or elderly and/or homeless. It’s a good thing to do, especially more than once or twice a year. But we need to work toward a society where we don’t have or need soup kitchens, where everyone has a home, enough food every day, and other things required to have a decent life. In that sense, I believe that “costly acts of kindness,” while admirable, aren’t enough.

  3. I think the world (and my spirit/soul) need both random acts of kindness AND costly acts of kindness. I’m in an age bracket now called “the elderly” (I’m 61) and also “disabled” since 3 1/2 months old. To sing part of an old song “what the world needs now is love, sweet love”; what the song never said was that love is costly and hard work and sometimes we don’t want to do it or it’s boring. That does not let us off the hook from doing both. Some of us can join soup kitchens or Habitat for Humanity, some of us can only pray and knit or sew. The world needs all of it.

  4. I think kindness can become a lifestyle, a person’s initial reaction to the needs of others. At that point acts of kindness might not always take much thought (holding a door open for someone without even thinking about what you’re doing, a habit of weekly visits to the library to tutor others in reading), but that doesn’t make them random. All true kindness is ultimately from God, and there is nothing random about what he does.

  5. Practicing random acts of kindness on a regular basis will become a habit. We will proactively be looking for that chance to help someone. Don’t discount the good that it does for the recipient. You may remember the story about the boy who dropped his books on the ground, and the fellow student who stopped to help him, then struck up a casual conversation with the boy. Later the student who helped him was told by that boy that he was on his way home to commit suicide. He changed his mind when he realized that he mattered to someone else after all. I think you belittle the random acts of kindness too much. Some can only do those types of things. Whatever and wherever God allows us to reach out, no matter how small, He can use to His glory. Remember the Little Flower and her Little Way. She is now a Doctor of the Church!

  6. That’s a great point, Bob. To work toward a society that doesn’t need those resources because we’re all invested in people more regularly. It’s what led to adopting foster kids for us. And your comment makes me wonder what next things we could invest in as a family.

  7. Great to connect with you as part of the team at Not Alone blog! And to find your blog here and your other online haunts. Looking forward to intentionally serving together in the special needs family realm!