Redefining Kindness While Harnessing the Power of Literacy with Kaitlin of Kind Cotton

kindness picture books podcast social emotional skills social justice Dec 02, 2022


Show Notes: 

Today I'm chatting with Kaitlin Johnstone, the co-founder of Kind Cotton about our shared vision to redefine Kindness.

We talk about the importance of moving away from the idea that Kindness is about being nice or being a people pleaser. Instead it's important to shift our understanding to being more empathetic in way that supports diverse audiences. The idea that Kindness is a concept that needs to be built with intention.

Kind Cotton is a clothing company dedicated to redefining kindness and putting books in the hands of kids. Their inclusive clothing helps to inspire others to rethink kindness as more than simple pleasantries, but rather take a deeper look into kindness being rooted in justice and grounded in action. 

With every purchase made, a book is directly given to a child through the Kind Cotton Reading Program.

As part of my commitment to giving back to the community I donated a box of my book: The Adventures of Team Brain to Kind Cotton! 

The Adventures of Team Brain was playfully brought to life by social emotional expert and founder of Raising Resilient Children Tara Gratto and Amazon Bestselling Cartoonist Jerome Cabanatan.

Order your copy HERE


Note: The transcript below may not be exactly the same as the podcast because it has not been edited for accuracy



Tara Gratto, Kaitlin Johnstone


Tara Gratto  00:01

Hello and welcome. I'm Tara the founder of raising resilient children. I support parents with the tools and skills they need to become the parent they want to be. Using my signature framework, the language of kindness and parent clues for problem solving. I teach you ways to make parenting easier while fostering connection and building essential life skills for resiliency. As a longtime educator, former preschool owner and parent, I have been working with parents and children for over 20 years. From this experience, I know there is no cookie cutter approach to parenting and information can be overwhelming. Let's tackle some of this by having some important conversations and digging into some different topics. Hello, welcome to the raising resilient children podcast with Tara Gratto. Today, I have a special guest that I am really excited to welcome to speak with me, I think we share a lot of similar values and approach to thinking about the world. So I think it'll be a great conversation. So I'd like to welcome Kaitlin. And I'd like to before I sort of dig into far one of the things that one of the reasons I found or discovered Kaitlin was because somebody told me about this person who was running this amazing company called Kind Cotton. And they they share not only sort of amazing graphics designs on apparel, but paired with that is a literacy program. And I made Kaitlin to talk more about that specifically, but those of you who follow me know how passionate I am about kindness and what kindness means. And that's going to be one of things we talked about today. And literacy and the importance of using books to build tools for feelings and kindness and social emotional well being, but also making books accessible to more children. So thank you so much for joining me, Kaitlin. And if you want to tell us a little bit about your company, where it started what you do, that would be amazing.


Kaitlin Johnstone  01:58

Sure, thank you so much for having me, I always love connecting with new people. You know, I continuously say there are really amazing things about social media. And then there are some things that are not so amazing. And one of the amazing things is meeting people like us. So thank you for giving me the space to kind of explain what our mission is it Kind Cotton in and what we are passionate about. So about, oh goodness, I want to say it was a little over five years ago, now I was a kindergarten teacher in a Florida classroom. And I was continuously noticing that a lot of my students unfortunately didn't have access to literacy in their homes. In fact, the school that I was at, we had a library, they were able to check out books, but they were not allowed to bring them home. So that in and of itself, some of my students had had zero books in their household. Right. So I was finding myself continuously buying books, giving them to my students for either holidays, or letting them take them from my classroom library. And I was a first year teacher. So as you know, a lot of the things that are in your classroom comes from your own money. So it was just all around this huge systemic problem that I was noticing that, of course, tons and tons and tons of people have spoken about, and recognize and advocate for. But being a first year teacher, I didn't really come into it, knowing any of that because you don't learn that per se in your schooling. So I came home one day, and I said to my boyfriend at the time now husband, hey, I think we need to start a company. And he was like, okay, you know, tell me more. And he was working in custom apparel. So I said, What if we created these shirts, it just started with shirts at the time that had these really thought provoking messages of kindness and love and empathy. And then with every single purchase, we donated a book to a child. And he was like, I'm all in, you know, like, where do you want to start? What do you want to do. And we first started with just a small reading program that I developed at a local elementary school in the same county that I was teaching in. And I would go once a month and I would create a lesson. And we would have a lot of fun and the kids would be super engaged. And then every single child would get to leave with a copy of the book that I did my last night. So then I was like, I want to expand this and we've done I'm sure we'll talk about this, but we've done a ton of programs since then. And just truly helping educators put inclusive books into the hands of kids throughout the US and in Canada as well in a couple of a couple of instances. And today, five years later, we're approaching 90 1000 books donated to


Tara Gratto  05:02

wow, that's so amazing. Yeah. I love I love that story. Because one of the things I mean, as you guys know, listening, I am also an educator by training. I haven't worked since the pandemic in with children, but there's a lot of things you don't realize. You hear about them, but they they don't resonate the same until you see it, you experience it right till you're part of it. You're like, the stories are not just stories. And it's not just a couple of schools, right? It's a lot of kids and a lot of schools. And like hearing you hearing you say, that gave me chills. I was just like, can you imagine not being allowed to take a book home? Right? You have, you can check it out. But you can actually take it home? And what does that say? And what does that feel like? Right? And I'm like, if you could see me right now, I'm literally surrounded by books. So I know you're just listening. But if you can see the picture of me right now, I literally have seven bookcases around me of all these are all picture books. And I just take that for granted, right? That's a part of what I expect childhood to be surrounded by books. And it's I think that's one of the reasons I want to have this conversation. And some of the reasons I just wrote a book is this idea that like, we can't just take that for granted, I was actually talking to a social worker this summer. And she was saying her biggest challenges she's facing right now, is that even when books are accessible, they're not picked anymore, as the thing as a need. Because, you know, the families will be like, you know, what, I think we need screens, I think we need like when they're prioritizing their wish lists, they're the books and dropped off. And she's like, I'm really trying to convince families that we have to still ask for books as a part of our wish list, because they really do change lives, they really do sort of impact children in a way that nothing else does. And I think that's what's so, so valuable about books and the work that you're doing. So in terms of what you're doing now. And one of the things that I really want to sort of talk about with you is because we have this shared concept of kindness, right. And I suspect and we've had one brief conversation, but like, I hear a lot of as social media, great things, and then not great things, right. And I'm hearing more and more people that are concerned that kindness is weakness, right? And that kindness, when we embody kindness, and when we share it as a value, that it's actually detrimental. Right, it's making people people pleasers, it's making kids not, you know, be cared for in authentic ways. So, I do want to throw that out to you, because you and I have a sort of shared understanding that kindness is not necessarily about being a people pleaser, or, or that so when you think of kindness, what what do you see it as what does it mean to you and your sort of vision?


Kaitlin Johnstone  07:53

So it's really interesting, because as I heard you say that and I never until now, I never thought of it in that regard. And I've never really heard of it used in that way. I've more so heard of it in the just be kind, just be nice, almost kind of like shut up and fall in line sort of scenario, which, for me, I think kindness in that regard has been weaponized for centuries upon centuries, to get marginalized communities to kind of fall in law or fall along with the status quo to get women to kind of, you know, be I guess what you're saying Be quiet, be a people pleaser, etc. And that makes complete and total sense. So what I want to make very clear is that the mission of cayenne cot and is to kind of redefine kindness away from that historical notion of being a people pleaser, of engaging in simple pleasantries as being kindness because kindness is not niceness, and it needs to be defined as something that is much more authentic or than that, yeah, deeper than that. Right? So we always say that kindness is something that needs to be rooted in justice and grounded in action. Of course, do we think you know, buying a cup of coffee for a friend is important or, or writing a handwritten note to your mom to let her know how much you care about her? Yes, all of these things can make like great impacts on that person's life. However, if we look at kindness collectively as like this global phenomenon, I think we need to take a much deeper look and focus on how kindness has been weaponized over over years and years and years, and what we could do about that to kind of redefine kindness.


Tara Gratto  09:42

Yeah, I totally agree with you like my parenting program is based on my signature framework, which is called the language of kindness. And it's this idea that and one of the things I talked about in the introduction is, I want you to rethink what you currently think about as kindness and want to redefine it. here and I have three pillars, which is kindness to self, kindness to others and kindness to the planet. And when we're talking about kindness to others, for example, I do talk about this sort of random acts of kindness, right, these things that we do for each other. And then I say, Well, isn't kindness to others also, this other level, right, this other piece, knowing more about right empathy, I see kindness as empathy, versus nicety. And I actually got called out on social media a few months ago, somebody was like, you talk about the language of kindness, and yet you you stand up for certain things. And that's not super kind. And I was like, I have to disagree with you, that when I stand up for a cause, or I stand against a person, or I stand against a marketing ideology, that doesn't mean I'm unkind, it means I'm choosing kindness to a greater amount or a different perspective, that actually means that I don't fulfill the nicety component of it, right? I'm not here to make you happy. My kindness isn't just about one person, it's about a whole group of people or a whole way of doing things. And I think like one of the things I talked about in my in my program is we have to define kindness for children at the base, right? Because kids are growing up thinking that getting coffee for the person behind them is what kindness is. Right? They don't understand that kindness is actually talking to somebody on the playground, they don't like in a in a in a different way, right being around people you disagree with. To me, the ultimate test of kindness is how you handle conflict. Right? Do it does that mean that I think you have to be like, super like, you know, placating people? Absolutely not. But I do think how you behave and how you move through these things does show what your understanding of empathy is your understanding of what other people are experiencing the world beyond yourself. And I think it's an intentional skill that we have to foster. Because overlooked right piece. So when you're doing sort of your work, and sort of, if you could share a little bit more about like how the books part sort of connects to, to your work, I know right? Now you're doing a challenge, I think, correct me if I'm, there's there's so much to take in on social media and you do it yeah, to keep track of the things that like value a value. But it is it's really overwhelming to try and sort of to keep tabs. So if you could tell us a little bit about your challenge, and also like, what that literacy piece looks like and how, how you're hoping like, what's your dream for it? What's your vision? How do you hope to, to make that sort of the next, like, 90,000 is no drop in the bucket, but like, what's your what's your dream?


Kaitlin Johnstone  12:44

Yeah, that's such a great question. So we made an intentional choice. Pretty much right after we started tying cotton, but definitely more so in the past three years, to focus on books, in which children are often represented. So we have a huge push. In fact, about 90% of the books that we put into the hands of kids are either from bipoc authors with bipoc main characters from the LGBTQ plus community, or from disabled authors, that other 10% falls very much into what you do, because in many instances, right now, social emotional learning in the US has been under attack as well. As we know, in order to be productive, caring, empathetic citizens, social emotional learning is a huge piece, right? We need to we need to be in touch with that. So all of our books that we provide to children truly speak the message that we are putting out there for our supporters. Right. You know, we, we really try as hard as we can. And we always recognize that we are continuously learning and growing as business owners and as people, but we really try to kind of talk the talk and walk the walk again, right? Yeah, absolutely. So I think that part of it is really, really important. And then to follow up on what you asked about our dream. I mean, our we've always said, ever since we started this, our dream would be to put a million books into the hands of kids. And now as you as we see our growth, I mean, maybe this is something that would be attainable within like 10 years or something, which is something that I would never have imagined. And I just want people to know when they think of us or a child has received a book from us that they're really chosen with some intentionality behind them. And they're chosen in order for children to feel seen and loved and heard and valued. And maybe if you are a child, like myself, or my daughter per se. I mean, I can't make all of these assumptions right now for her. However, basically, if you're a child sitting and listening to one of the books that we are donating, and you are white straight sis, then you are learning empathy. And you're learning about other cultures, and you're learning about other people, because that's what books are for. They provide a look into people who are different from them. And we're never going to have empathy towards one another if we don't learn about people who are different from us. So they're affirming in one way, and then they're also a way to see others. And another one, that


Tara Gratto  15:38

Yeah, absolutely. And that's exactly what I sort of teach is this. I mean, there's a great I think, I can't remember who said it, I will look it up to find to put it in the show notes. Don't books or doors, windows and mirrors right


Kaitlin Johnstone  15:51

there. And I should remember her name, too.


Tara Gratto  15:55

It's, it's all good. I will I will make sure I put it in the show notes. But that's that's so important element, right, that these books can do these things. And one of the things I like to share with parents is why books are, are so great at this is because kids are not super abstract. They're super imaginative, but they're not abstract thinkers, and social emotional intelligence and inclusion, diversity. Empathy, are I mean, if you ask the most people, adults, to define empathy to define any of these, they like stumble on their words, and we expect kids to just sort of know, right? So if we can't define it, certainly kids can't define it. So what are the things I like to share is why books are valuable is because we actually give kids a visual, we give kids some age appropriate language, cuz that's the other thing, right? We're talking about big topics. And a lot of parents I work with, they're like, I can't have this conversation because I feel uncomfortable one to I don't know what to say, I don't know what's age appropriate. I don't know, where do we talk about things like in Canada, right? Residential Schools? And where do we talk about right? Anti Asian racism? Like, what? How do we even start these conversations? And that's why picture books are so brilliant, because they already take that guesswork out and give you the the tools, right, here's the language, here's some pictures. And here's how you can read the book from different perspectives, right for the children who need to see themselves or the children who need to see others. Here's, here's that that sort of reason. And I think that's, I think it's not an uncommon unknown thing that that books are important. I don't I don't think there's pretty much anybody that we could say like, there's kind of a general consensus, we know that what I think is lesser known is the kinds of books you pick the way you read the books, right? And how you have conversations with the books. I think that's the lesser sort of talked about piece of this puzzle, if you will, of talking about, you know, growing kindness and growing an understanding of empathy and awareness. Is the book alone doesn't do it. Like a book being there isn't enough, you actually have to say it. And something I love to share. And I've said it before on my podcast is any topic you avoid is a topic kids think they're not allowed to talk about. Yeah, so you might be fine with it. But if you don't bring it up, they will think you're not fine with it. But they may have a lot of questions like I read a really great post the other day, I'm about to do a feature on a book about inclusion. And someone with a disability actually said this, they're like, don't ask us don't approach us don't rape. Here's a great space for a book. Let your child ask you the questions. Let your child be prepared to be empathetic in the moment, right? Because kids want to ask, and it's not appropriate to do certain things. And how do we teach them the right language? How do we teach them to approach that's where books are so great, because you can they can actually try things, try language. And that's where we can help them with actually, we need to say it like this, or actually, we need to approach it like this. That's how we build this, like understanding of kindness. That's not offensive. That's not right. Because kids are curious, we can't take their curiosity away from them. One way we can address that is say, Hey, here's this book. Let's have the conversation here. So that when we're at the park, we have a different approach to our understanding of that other person that's there, right? And now for a quick break to tell you about something special. Are you looking for a fun way to introduce emotional regulation and the importance of building tools for your feelings? Introducing the adventures of teen brain a comic picture book with a playful take on emotional regulation your child to become the superhero in their own teen brain story, they will learn how to handle the daily stress storms of life ways of keeping their emotions brain from evolving into T Rex level dyno brain and see how fun and important it is to build tools and skills for their feelings. This adventure was playfully brought to life by social emotional expert and founder raising resilient children Tara Gratto, and Amazon Best Selling cartoonist Jerome Cabanatuan. Find it worldwide. Get on Amazon or head to the shownotes to Purchase your copy. Now let's get back to the show.


Kaitlin Johnstone  20:06

And I think oftentimes, we, as adults, or educators or parents, you touched upon something really important. And it was a feeling of just comfort. And a lot of the times when we're talking about topics such as this, it's we're not meant to be comforted, right? It's not uncomfortable topics a lot of the times, so it's okay to be uncomfortable. It's okay to not have all the answers, it's okay to mess up. What's not okay is to not have these conversations with your children, because then you aren't affirming them that these are important things to be discussing, right. And they may have a lot of questions, and they may, they may look to you, obviously, as their primary caregiver, as the person who can answer these questions for them. So I think it I think it's really important to know that too, right? I mean, I 100% that a lot of times, I am still learning, I'm still growing. And there are a lot of amazing books out there that helped me to do so. I mean, as an adult, every time that I have someone on we have this little IG series where we have a take a look behind the book, can we bring on the author who we've purchased a certain amount of books from, and they read their book, and we have a discussion about why it was so important for them to write this book. And I'm always learning and I'm always saying, you know, it's amazing to me that a picture book can be this powerful because I can find multiple adults in my life that would benefit from really hearing the word. Yeah.


Tara Gratto  21:52

I think that I had a, I had an interview with Jarrett Learner A couple of weeks ago. So he's a he's an illustrator and author. And we actually talked about this, why how picture books and graphic novels are this other category. And yet, you know, it's because of the system of literacy that we believe we have to put them down at some point. And one of the things I shared is I actually use picture books in some of my parent groups, because it is the easiest, most effective way. And I actually learned that when I was training to be an outdoor leader, the leader at the time, took out a picture book, and I was like, we're all 20 to 30. Like, what are you doing? Right? It was, um, it was a mind blowing moment. I mean, I never thought twice as an educator about doing in the classroom, I did it in K to 8k to 12. Right? Kids didn't didn't think twice about it. But here this leader was in this like it was we were all 20 to 30 year olds, and I was like, a picture book. My mind was blown, because I was like, there is no actually better form of communication, there's pictures, there's the right language, because there's some heavy processing that has to happen. And I love that you said like, you don't have to have the answers. And it's amazing. We're living in a world like so I did my masters 20 years ago on using literacy to support developing what's now called empathy at the time was called experiential education. There was hardly any books, and it was like Trudy Ludwig was kind of like the books. Eric Walters, he has so but there was hardly any at the time, like it was really pulling grasping. Now, there is any topic you could ever think of. And, and not just like, done, done well, right, like, done beautifully. So there is nothing wrong with saying your child, you know what, I don't actually have the answer. But let's go to library get a book. I don't have the answer. Let me find a book. So that's a great segue to a question I was gonna ask you, how do you pick your books? How do you pick the author's? How do you go through that selection process of saying, hey, when you've purchased our apparel? And where can you do that? We'll do that in a second. But like, when you purchase things, what's that process? How do you choose the authors? Because there's hundreds and what's involved in that?


Kaitlin Johnstone  23:59

Yeah, so that is a really great, great question. And like I said, we kind of almost have so our first i want it feels weird to say like vetting process, but to kind of like narrow down what makes we are giving to kids, we always look for those top things that I told you before. It has to either be bipoc, author, LGBTQ plus author, or characters and disabled, or social emotional learning. So I that still offers you a wide range of 1000s and 1000s and 1000s of books. So a lot of it I mean, me myself being a small business owner, a lot of it has been through connections that I made via social media, and really trying to specifically in our take a look behind the book series. We're really trying to highlight smaller authors, because we want to support small businesses too. And we also want to provide our followers with books that they're not necessarily going to see on the New York Times bestsellers list. Do we have authors like that? And do I think that that's incredibly important? 100%. You mentioned Trudy earlier, and she has sent me some of her books. And it was kind of like a fangirl moment. Yeah,


Tara Gratto  25:19

100% I want to have, I want to have her on the podcast. Sometimes she's literally like, she's in my thesis. I'm like I want, whenever she comments on my stuff, I'm like,


Kaitlin Johnstone  25:29

she's amazing. She's amazing. Or one of my all time favorite children's book authors of all time is Derrick Barnes and I had the opportunity to interview him and just, you know, kind of those moments for me are really amazing. However, I think there's just such such a need for highlighting some of the books that the average person may not know or may not see. And they're really, really beautiful. And really, incredibly, so yeah, that's, that's kind of how we choose


Tara Gratto  26:03

like, awesome. Yeah, I have a similar like, in my program, I have a balance of books that I have a couple indigenous authors who I know are amazing. Some of them are bestsellers, but some of them aren't. And I just I love their books. So they're a part of my collection of like, here's my sort of book list. And I'm really intentional about picking authors that are both sort of accessible and maybe not as accessible or not a showcase might have amazing contributions to make. So I think that's a really cool, cool piece. Well, just before you round out, where can people find you? Where can they get your apparel, so that you have a website, all that great stuff, I will include all the information she's about to share in the show notes. But for those of you who are like on the go and ready to type something in, where can they where can they start supporting you?


Kaitlin Johnstone  26:54

Yeah, thank you so much. I was so excited to have this conversation. So thank you for having me on. Again. Our website is kind caught And I'm mainly active on Instagram, I'm on all social media platforms, but primarily on Instagram is the easiest way to get in contact with me and that is also at cotton.


Tara Gratto  27:17

Amazing. And do you ship worldwide or once we do? Okay, because I do have some I knew, I do know I have listeners across the globe. So


Kaitlin Johnstone  27:28

we've all felt. Absolutely we've shipped to China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada often.


Tara Gratto  27:37

Thanks so much for listening. Be sure to subscribe so you'll be notified when future episodes launch. For information on how to connect with me head to Tara Or you can find me on Instagram at raising resilient children. Until next time, thanks again for listening to the raising resilient children podcast with Tara Gratto.