“For the moms watching today, I will just let you know that I sent my daughter off into the world today with a pair of underwear instead of a mask for her face.”
Born This Way Foundation Executive Director, Maya Enista Smith, enters our discussion with a relatable reality check, “So, I’m very much looking forward to talking about the real life connection between parenting and kindness.”
Mother of a five and a seven-year-old, she candidly shares her experiences parenting with kindness, advice for those struggling right now, and the inception of #BeKind21 and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, all with the warmth and humility we can all aspire to during these difficult times.
“I have two incredible kids and I’m so grateful I get to do all that I can to build a kinder and braver world for and with them.”
Chatting with Maya, it’s also clear that young people and parents are intrinsic to this work and the long term goals of BTWF and #BeKind21.
“Born This Way Foundation has three main goals:”
- The first is to make kindness cool
- The second is to validate the emotions of young people everywhere
- The third is to eliminate the stigma around mental health
It was a privilege to talk with her about everyday interactions, moments, and opportunities to offer ourselves, our littles, and others kindness.
A Little Launched The First #bekind21
The annual #BeKind21 campaign started three years ago, in Maya’s son’s kindergarten class. During the first week of school, she went in to ask his teacher how she could get more involved in the classroom since her work with Born This Way Foundation required her to travel often.
“They asked if I was willing to volunteer, and I made a joke, ‘You know, unless it has something to do with kindness, I won’t be able to do it.’ They made me Kindness Co-chair of Spring Hill Elementary School.”
There, they created the very first #BeKind21 list, of what would become thousands. It included ways to be kind for the parents, teachers, and students. A passing conversation about it with Lady Gaga soon turned into the yearly campaign we are honored to be a part of today.
“I was in Malibu with Lady Gaga and I was telling her about this sweet parenting moment I was having. She was like, ‘I think you’re probably not the only parent who is thinking about how to raise kind kids and how to build kindness in communities. We should launch this campaign globally.’ And I was like, “oh, I’m not trying to add extra work, I’m just telling you this story.” And she said ‘No, let’s do it’”.
In the first year of #BeKind21, the campaign resulted in over 1.8 million pledged acts of kindness. This year, the third year, #BeKind21 has reached over 110 million pledged acts of kindness.
“Hunter is very proud of the campaign that he helped build. Lady Gaga actually got him a little medal that says ‘king of kindness’ which is totally antithetical to what we’re trying to do here, there is no ‘king of kindness,’ but he is very proud of the work.”
The Work of The Born This Way Foundation is Deeply Personal
“It’s not lost on me that I work for one of my favorite mother-daughter combinations,” Maya says, reflecting on the privilege to learn from Cynthia Germanotta, who founded Born This Way Foundation eight years ago with her daughter, Lady Gaga.
The foundation was built on the personal experiences that Lady Gaga had growing up. Maya says, “From an early age, she was the creative, unique, beautiful soul that she is today.” But it wasn’t always easy.
“As many of us, and the people watching at home know, sometimes when you’re young, and you’re different, it’s viewed as a liability instead of an asset. So from an early age, she endured a lot of meanness and cruelty and bullying. She was clear from a very early age that if she were to survive her life, she would use her time, her treasure, and her talent to make sure that other young people not only survived but that they were able to thrive.“
COVID Superheroes & Teaching Kindness in the Context of Current Events
Maya shares how parenting kindness is sometimes about addressing the moment we are in with our littles. The way that we're going to build this kinder and braver world is to start talking about it as early as possible in as many different ways as we can.
“Right now, in this moment of COVID and the movement to dismantle systemic racism, I think both of these are really present teaching moments for the Smith children.”
Lady Gaga said on MTV's Video Music Awards that wearing a mask is a sign of respect, and Maya makes it a point to share this message and discusses why they wear them with her kids.
“In our house, we tell Hunter and Logan that they’re COVID superheroes. And they get to decorate their own masks, and they keep themselves and each other safe. We talk to them about why we believe that Black lives matter and what it means to show up in that way, and about the history of social movements. We’ve been talking a lot about kindness within the frame of current events.”
Juggling Parenting & The Myth of Work-Life Balance
Maya’s friend Bridgette also runs an organization in Michigan called Kids Food Basket, and they often discuss the idea of balance — work-life balance.
"People talk about it in aggregate. Every hour, I'm presented with the choice to be a great Executive Director, a great mom, a great wife, a great friend, maybe even in 5-minute increments."
At every opportunity and interaction, Maya pauses to consider who she is bringing to each experience and how she shows up but says the concept of work-life balance isn’t as feasible as we are often made to believe it is.
“Work-life balance just doesn't exist. I don't think we should hold ourselves to this idea of, you know, I cooked dinner, and I did that, and I read stories, and I worked eight hours and I... you know, ironed clothes and, and, and… I think that as much as we can be kind to ourselves and remember what we need and how to take care of ourselves, that's how we show up better in the world.”
Maya credits her ability to manage both parenting and work to her support system, which includes her husband, her team, and the local family she's built with her relatives living across the country, "We create a family for ourselves.”
She notes the ordinary acts of kindness she receives from her teammate Josh Meredith to illustrate the simple yet profound ways we can all show up for one another.
“He sends me ice cream if he knows I'm having a rough day. I think just the small margins we create for each other, the kindness, when we go out of our way for another person, that is absolutely how I've survived parenting and this work.”
At the end of the day, when it comes to working and parenting, one size does not fit all.
"I wish I had a magic formula. I do not have one other than, there's no right way to do it. That everybody is doing an amazing job and that if we can just keep being kind to ourselves and each other, recognizing when people are struggling and supporting them, I think we'll all be better for it."
Unapologetic Self-Care & Ideas For Thriving Through “Physical Distancing”
Despite physical separation, connection is key to thriving right now, and that includes sharing ways we are coping with this brand new experience.
"We made a decision at the foundation to not say ‘social distancing.’ Because in this moment, what we actually mean is physical distancing. We need to keep six feet of physical distancing for good reason, but we need increased social connection. We need to really dive into the ways we can stay in touch with one another, so people don't feel alone. I'm a big fan of good, old-fashioned mail. I like to write a lot of postcards and letters. I've been doing a lot more FaceTime.”
If Maya is having a rough day, she'll often search the #BeKind21 hashtag to remind herself of all the world's good and kindness, “This #BeKind21 campaign is also really giving me a lot of life."
She says the other key to surviving is being unapologetic about her self-care, something she wishes she figured out sooner.
"I love to take naps. I'll say to Josh, 'I've had a long day, I need 2:00 p.m.to 4:00 p.m. today to take a nap.' I think it's important, especially for parents, to figure out what it is that sustains you and be unapologetic about finding the time to do that."
She jokes, these days, she's single-handedly keeping DoorDash in business, but for a long time, she felt bad about not being able to cook for her children.
"And then I figured out that it doesn't have to be me alone, right. That there's some things that I'm really, really well-suited for in this world, and cooking is just not one of them. But I'm growing a mean COVID garden right now."
She also emphasizes the importance of moving our bodies while keeping others safe, crediting her movement to her new, energetic pandemic puppy!
Centering Mental Wellness
While we discuss great ideas to share for getting through, Maya says the foundation's focus is centered around mental wellness.
"In all seriousness, the current moment is creating a lot of anxiety, a lot of mental health issues. And we need to make sure that if we ourselves are struggling, as so many of us are, that we know how to take care of ourselves, or we know how to take care of our loved ones."
She calls out some important resources and partner organizations on the foundation's website for those reading or who know someone who may be struggling.
- Jack.org — "A Canadian-based mental health organization and they have this incredible five-minute training called ‘Be There,’ about how to have those hard conversations, dig in with someone who may be suffering, and connect to resources because you never know. Find it at bethere.org.
- To Get Help: Born This Way Foundation Resources — One of the bravest things you can do is to ask for help. Whether you’re struggling with a particular issue, just not feeling like yourself, or looking for more ways to take care of yourself, resources exist that can offer the support you need and it’s never too early (or too late!) to reach out.
Born This Way Foundation carefully curated a list of self-care and mental health resources. Together with their team of trusted mental health experts, we compiled resources specific to the challenges that arise with raising and caring for children.
"We can talk about pandemic puppies and gardens and all of these things, but a lot of people, myself included, have been struggling throughout this pandemic. We need to talk more openly about mental health, and we need to make sure that you know the resources to get support."
It’s Okay to Not Be Okay Right Now
"I wish for a world in which we're all doing well again. And hopefully, that comes soon, but however you're feeling is okay. Some days if you don't want to get out of bed, don't get out of bed. Go to sleep and wake up the next morning. It's okay to be sad. It's okay to feel however you feel. For most of us, this is the first time that we're going through a pandemic, and Lady Gaga always says, ‘it's okay not to be okay.’"
Maya lifts her left wrist to show us a tattoo of an anchor.
"The Find Your Anchor box was created by an incredible young woman named Ali Borowsky — thankfully, she is still with us—but she is a four-time suicide attempt survivor. When she was trying to figure out how to best take care of herself, she started finding anchors to things to connect her to the world when she was unsure of how she would stay in it. And so she's created this tangible suicide prevention resource called the Find Your Anchor box, and it's this beautiful blue box. It comes with a deck of cards, ‘52 Reasons to Live,’ a ton of resources. It's really an incredible, an incredible toolkit."
Maya got the tattoo to remind herself that she always has the opportunity to help people stay connected to the world. "All of us do. All of us have the chance, the opportunity, the responsibility of being anchors."
The Research is in: Vulnerability Starts with Us
Maya shared with us helpful parenting research the foundation conducted. Using a diary study, they asked parents how they felt they were doing talking to their young people about mental health. Then they asked those same young people how they thought their parents were doing.
"No surprise to anyone, the parents were like, ‘I'm nailing it—A plus. I'm doing such a good job talking about mental health.’ The kids were like, ‘not so much.’"
In that research, they found that young people had a hard time sharing with their parents because the vulnerability wasn't being mirrored.
"I'm always asking Hunter like, ‘What's wrong? What are you sad about? Do your feelings hurt?’ But I'm never telling him about a time that I'm sad or that my feelings were hurt. So, he's not learning the language to share his emotions. And those are seven-year-old problems, right? As kids get older, we need to make sure that we're creating a safe environment for them to share their feelings."
Thinking a lot about the connection between parents and their children and mental health conversations in the home, one of Maya's favorite innovations is the notOK App, founded by two siblings, Hannah and Charlie — a digital panic button Charlie built for Hannah to upload the contacts of the people she wanted to alert when she was not feeling okay.
"So, instead of putting the burden on her to go tell someone that she's not OK if she's struggling or doesn't want to get out of bed, she just pushes the notOK App. And the people that she's asked to have notified are notified, and they know, 'Let's check in with Hannah. Let's send her some coffee. Let's see how she's doing. Let's make sure that we send her some extra love.' So everybody should download and participate in the notOK App because it's important that we have those people that we can turn to, that we can talk to that we know that are there for us."
How Can You Continue to Show Up, Serve, and Be Kind in Today’s World?
Many of us are wondering how we can show up for others in a physically-distanced world. Still, Maya reminds us that proximity doesn't limit our ability to serve others in our lives or our communities.
"The foundation has no shortage of lists on how to be kind; ideas, even in a virtual world, for how to spread kindness. So please, please, please email firstname.lastname@example.org."
Other ideas include:
- Donors Choose: Getting students what they need to go back to school.
- Local food banks: "Food insecurity during this time has gone up significantly. So, if you are able to donate food or money to your local food bank, that is an urgent need."
"So there's so many ways to continue to be kind, to continue to stay connected with your community. And if you need any ideas, please, please, please reach out to us because we know that being kind is one of the protective factors against depression, against anxiety, against social isolation."
"I am living for social media right now with #BeKind21. Just this morning, I posted a picture of my pajama pants and slippers under this fancy shirt. You can follow me on social media and the foundation for some behind the scenes #BeKind21 content."
Reflecting Reality, Sharing Stories, and Spreading Kindness
Speaking of social media, we also touched on the importance of reflecting reality and lived experiences right now as social channels are a significant source of connection for many of us.
"My computer is on a shoebox. The Christmas wrapping is in the corner. I bribed my kids with Oreos for a minute. Let's be honest and kind and inclusive because we're only going to survive this together. And we're all, we're all struggling. We're all surviving in different ways. I think it's so important that we talk honestly about the challenges that we're facing and what we're learning in these moments."
Maya says one primary key for coping is to know that we are not alone. That we will all come out on the other side of this together, albeit changed.
"Hopefully, we will appreciate things differently. In pre-pandemic times, I got on a plane two or three times a week. This is the longest I've ever been home in my entire life. I'm learning a lot about myself and my family."
Maya also makes sure to highlight Born This Way Foundation’s storytelling platform Channel Kindness.org — "a place you can go to share your stories, to look for kindness, to share your big and little stories of bravery."
She shares a picture of the cover of CHANNEL KINDNESS with us, a book that honors those stories, slated for release on September 22nd! You can learn more about and pre-order CHANNEL KINDNESS at https://smarturl.it/ChannelKindness
“We're really proud of it — more importantly, we would love to have anybody that's watching, parents and kids and educators write for channelkindness.org.”
You can check out our Channel Kindness story here!
Join Maya, Born This Way Foundation, and Bumkins as we pledge to be kind in 2020 and beyond!