Recently orphaned Jaden Hayes, 6, is on a campaign to get others to grin. His aunt tells Yahoo Parenting: “You can see the power of the love that he feels from these people sharing their smiles with him.” (Photo: Mstashers/Instagram)
The last thing that anyone would expect of Jaden Hayes — who recently lost his mother only two years following his father’s death — is a smile. But that is what the 6-year-old is giving strangers all over the city of Savannah, Ga., and getting in return.
On July 22, the orphan kicked off a “smile experiment,” as he’s calling his campaign, to get grins from grim-faced strangers. His plan: simply asking for a smile and giving out small toys. Jaden’s goal is 500 smiles, each of which he documents by taking a picture. In the first two days, WSB-TV reported, Hayes already had 275 photos in his collection, bringing a ray of sunshine into what is otherwise an understandably dark time for him.
“At first, he was hesitant, but once he got that first smile, he was off like a firecracker,” Hayes’s aunt, Barbara DiCola, tells Yahoo Parenting of the boy, whose mother’s death at age 48 was a shock to the family. (They are still awaiting a toxicology report to determine what may have caused her to pass away in her sleep, DiCola says.)
“When he smiles, he has a glow,” she says. “And for a young boy who’s been through so much to be able to walk up to complete strangers and give them something to make them smile, then hug them like he’s known them his whole life, that is a gift. You can see the power of the love that he feels from these people, too, who share their smiles with him.”
Trying to get people to grin was entirely Hayes’s idea, DiCola told WSB-TV. “I was getting him ready for bed, tucking him in, and he says, ‘Auntie, I’m so tired of everybody with frowny faces,’” she said. “‘We need to make people smile. … Can we do that?’” DiCola agreed, and then told him they’d discuss ideas in the morning. “I’ll be darned if that boy didn’t wake me up at 5 in the morning with ideas,” she said.
But a city full of smiling new friends isn’t the only thing Hayes is relying on for comfort. “He has me, his auntie, and my daughter,” DiCola tells Yahoo Parenting about the grade schooler’s support system. “And we have a very large family and we all stay in contact.”
Hayes has plans to extend his cheer campaign. “He told me the other night that he wanted to make people smile in New York,” DiCola says. “I said, ‘Honey you’ve been making people smile all over the world!’ and I showed him on Facebook how his story has been going around. He was interested in it for, like, five minutes, then he was off playing.”
The gesture of his smile experiment may seem simple enough, but psychoanalyst Amy Morin tells Yahoo Parenting that it’s actually a pretty sophisticated way of coping with powerful emotions. “Traumatic events often cause people to think about all the things they don’t have control over in life,” says the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. “Giving back can help them focus on things they can control.”
Helping other people can be an important step in the healing process, she adds. “Jaden is likely to find meaning, and a sense of purpose, in his attempts to make other people smile. And his desire to help other people, rather than feel sorry for himself, reveals his incredible mental strength. Even though he’s only 6, and he’s gone through a lot of hardship, he still recognizes that he has a lot to contribute to others.”
Take it from Hayes himself. “It makes me kind of really proud,” the child told local news affiliate WTOC about how he feels watching other people break into a smile when he approaches them. “And I like it when people smile. Because when you smile, it makes me happy. It makes me happier and happier.”