Kindness: What does it mean to be kind?

Without doubt, human kindness is an issue of unending concern in society at-large, in healthcare, and in the nursing profession in particular. This enduring concern points to the fundamental importance of kindness in human relationships and also to the fact that we human beings are not always kind to one another. 

Kindness is part of the essential identity of professional nurses. Nursing literature abounds with articles about the importance of kindness in nurse-patient relationships and nurses' responsibility to create a culture of kindness in their practice setting. Kindness is generally understood as a key aspect of caring expressed by being attentive, empathetic, compassionate, thoughtful, respectful and considerate in relationships with others.

But the word 'kind' itself gives deeper insight into the fundamental meaning of being kind.


The word kind has the same origin and meaning as the word kin. Kin comes to us through Old English, cynn, meaning one's own kind, the human kind, and earlier from Old German, kunne, meaning begotten as members of one's own kind; having the same nature as all members of the human family (Partridge, 1988; Kind, adj. and adv., 2019; Kind, n., adj. 2019).

The origin of the word kind indicates that our kin are not only members of our own personal family. Our kin are all members of the human family; all humankind. We can call our awareness of all human beings being kin to one another "kin-ness."

Kindness as kin-ness

Thinking kin-ness and being kind to oneself and others are considered natural human characteristics which infuse all our feelings, attitudes, and activities such that we are always benevolent, friendly, considerate and generous towards ourselves and others (Kind, adj. and adv., 2019; Kind, n., adj. 2019).

We are often aware of the link between kindness and kin-ness when we strive to care for others in the same way we would wish to be cared for ourselves or would wish to have personal family members or friends cared for.

But kin-ness in relation to kindness means taking this understanding a step further and extending it beyond personal relationships. We cannot be kind to some human beings and not to others because all human beings are our kin; we are all of the human kind.

Kindness as a relational characteristic

Kindness is a deeply relational human characteristic. Taken that nurse-patient relationships are central to nursing practice, kindness has particular importance in nursing practice. We are responsible to be kind to all human beings we care for in all circumstances, whether they are pleasant and accepting of our care or act unpleasantly and disrespectfully toward us. All are our kin and due our kindness.

The relational nature of kindness also highlights the importance of our being kind to one another, whether the nurses we practice with are kind and helpful to us or mean-minded and unfair to us. The nursing literature calls on us repeatedly to create a culture of kindness in our practice settings (Mace 2012; Iacono, 2017).

Disruptive relationships amongst nurses in practice settings, often called bullying or incivility, is a long-standing and seemingly intractable professional problem (Moore, et al., 2017) which kindness/kin-ness would surely go some way to resolving.

In addition, in as much as kindness is part of the essential identity of nurses, we are responsible to take the lead in creating a culture of kindness/kin-ness in our practice settings. 

However, we human beings are not always kind to one another

It is widely evident that although we say we value kindness and declare our intention to be kind, we are often unkind and even cruel to one another. We can take one another for granted. We can be jealous, resentful and deceive one another. We can ignore and gossip derisively about one another. We can be condescending and insult, ridicule and detest one another.

Being unkind and tending toward being cruel can become a harmful habit. We can become indifferent to our human kin-ness.

How can it be that kindness is a natural human characteristic and at the same time we are, often enough, unkind and cruel to one another?

How can we work toward always being kind? 

Firstly, by reflecting on what we know 

In Careful Nursing the neo-Aristotelian intellectual tradition of Thomas Aquinas provides us with a framework for understanding kindness and kin-ness as natural human characteristics and also for explaining why we are at times unkind; in addition, it provides us with a structure for actualising our capacity for kindness. Aquinas argues that we are holistic beings who live simultaneously in two worlds, a material bio-physical world of body and senses and an immaterial intellectual world of mind and spirit; we are simultaneously human animals who reason and embodied spirits (DeYoung et al. 2009).

Our being is grounded in the deeply loving Infinite Transcendent Reality of absolute goodness, which is the source of our human goodness and which guides us entirely toward goodness, including kindness and kin-ness. 

Secondly, by understanding why we are sometimes unkind and even cruel

Elaborating on theories of Aristotle, Aquinas maintains that as intellectual, reasoning beings we make judgements based on knowledge. We are free to use all our knowledge to reason, judge and choose as we wish; we have free will.

However, in exercising our free will we are inclined to faulty reasoning and a diverse range of understandings of what is good. What we judge to be good is not always in keeping with the true goodness of Infinite Transcendent Reality (DeYoung et al. 2009), the true goodness of kindness.

For example, we may judge that recognition of our importance is a good thing in our interactions with others; it is always good to put oneself forward and stand up for oneself. We may not think about how choosing our importance as a good thing relates to the goodness of human kindness, and we may have a tendency to overdo our own importance. The old maxim "The kind-thoughted man [woman] has no self-importance to push" (Kind, adj. and adv., 2019) would help us think again about whether self-importance is truly a good thing. 

Or, we may feel irritated by an elderly patient who keeps ringing her call-bell for little "unimportant" requests. We reason and make the judgement that it would be a good thing for the patient and everyone concerned if we tell her to stop ringing her bell all the time because there are other patients more in need of our attention than she is. While this technically may be the case, is this judgement truly a good thing? This "good thing" could easily slide into meanness. 

Inadequate staffing levels and other stresses which leave us exhausted and frustrated can severely test our ability to reason based on knowledge and to make truly good judgements in keeping with the goodness of Infinite Transcendent Reality; the goodness of kindness and kin-ness. 

Thirdly, by linking values to virtues and developing kindness and kin-ness as habits

As professional nurses we particularly value kindness and by association we can be said to value kin-ness. Values are things that motivate us (Stein, 2000). We can strengthen the motivating force of our values of kindness and kin-ness by considering them as virtues.

Aquinas defines a virtue as "the perfection of a capacity" and "a habit ordered to action" (DeYoung et al. 2009, p.131). We have a range of inner capacities, such as kindness and kin-ness, which we can develop to a high level of capability using our intellect and will.

But Aquinas and Aristotle stress that it is not enough just to think and learn about virtues and resolve to develop them; action is essential; we must practice them. To develop the virtue of kindness we must practice kindness and to develop the virtue of kin-ness we must practice thinking kin-ness.

And here is the pièce de résistance; every time we practice something it moves closer and closer to becoming a habit. A habit is a capability that we can develop consciously and deliberately with repeated effort using our will. Over time the capability becomes embedded in our nature and becomes a habit. 

Test this out – it works. Kindness and thinking kin-ness can become habits that we do easily and naturally, despite stressful practice circumstances, because we have done them so many times before - they can become a natural part of our every-day practice. 


DeYoung, R.K., McCluskey, C., & Van Dyke, C. (2009). Aquinas's Ethics. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Iacono, M. V. (2017). The culture of kindness. Journal of PeriAnesthesia Nursing, 32, 656-659.

Kind, adj. and adv. (2019)

Kind. n., adj. (2019).

Mace, K. (2012). Creating a culture of kindness. Journal of Christian Nursing, 29, 228-231.

Moore, L. W., Sublett, C. & Leahy, C. (2017). Nurse managers speak out about disruptive nurse-to-nurse relationships. Journal of Nursing Administration, 17, 24-29.

Partridge, E. Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. New York: Random House.

Stein, E. (2000). Philosophy and Psychology of the Humanities. Washington, DC: ICS Publications. 

Therese Meehan

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