More than words

March 20th, 2012

It takes more than a slogan to teach kids kindness.

There is always a refraction principle at work when we observe our kids, like watching fish below the surface of a clear pond. Our perspective is bent by the invisible line between the realm of adulthood and childhood. We think we see where they are, but it’s only approximate.

I watch my boys coming and going from school and play, riding bikes and hanging out with their friends. I run interference on both sides of the phone and the door and birthday party invitations. They have friends of all kinds. I don’t know if they are popular. They seem happy and well-liked.

I would like to say I don’t care about popular. It would only be half-true. I don’t care if my children are popular. I do care if they are not. I was the unpopular kid for several years in junior high, and I wouldn’t wish that experience on any child, let alone the ones I love most.

I was not friendless. Writing a memoir corrected my perspective on that. I have always had good friends. But for most of my seventh and eighth grades, I was one of the untouchables among my classmates, an outsider. I wasn’t bullied — I think we’ve become so quick to toss that word around, it verges on meaningless–but I was ostracized. I quit trying to understand why. I kept my head down, and accepted that I was all wrong.

Part way through my seventh grade year, a strange thing happened. One of the “mean girls” (I went to an all-girls Catholic school) started being kind to me. It was sudden and shocking. By “kind,” I mean she acknowledged me as human being in front of our classmates. She’d make small talk, remarking about our homework, or asking to borrow a pencil. It’s hard for me to overstate how miraculous this seemed, how out of the blue.  Then one day, one of her friends shamed her in class for speaking to me.

“Talking to your girlfriend?” she snarked.

And the reprieve was over. I remember — or did I just imagine — my almost-friend looking at me with sadness and regret. God bless her. We never did become friends, but I will never forget those few days of kindness. Or the courage it took to show it.

You know, it’s so damn easy for grownups to get behind slogans, like “stand up to bullies” or “resist peer pressure.” Slap posters up all over the school, hold rallies, copy status updates, and be ready to publicly crucify any kid who falls short of absolute moral grace and courage that we ourselves can only hope to possess under pressure.

Do we think it’s that simple? Do we remember what it was like at all?

I do. I never held it against that girl for having to go back to her tribe when she was summoned. I don’t hold it against the girl who did the summoning (who, by the way, grew up to be a splendid woman with tons of character). We were children.

I finally understood that when I returned to my high school reunion several years ago as the valedictorian. There was a photo table, strewn with pictures of all my classmates through kindergarten up to our senior year, and in every one of them, we were children. In that moment, I was released. You cannot be an adult and hang onto wrongs inflicted on you as a child by another child. You can remain the wounded child and hang onto the grudge, or you can grow up and let it go. But you can’t occupy both spaces. I chose to be the grown up and let it go. You can call it forgiveness, but only inasmuch as an adult “forgives” the error of a child. I prefer to call it understanding. The putting away of childish things.

I’m remembering this today, because yesterday  I overheard my son and a friend say something unkind about a kid they go to school with, a child who seems to have trouble fitting in. Needless to say, I stopped them. I don’t require my kids to be friends with anyone, or to even be nice to everyone, but I do require kindness and empathy.

I’m not sure how you ensure that, but I know for sure it takes more than taping a poster on the wall or a clicking “like” on a viral video. I think it starts with modeling. How many times have you seen a concerned parent post an anti-bullying message to Facebook, only to see them post a juicy piece of celebrity or political snark later the same day? How many parents complain about mean kids, and think nothing of their child overhearing them gossip about an acquaintance or watching a cutthroat reality competition on tv? How many of us preach respect and good sportsmanship and demonstrate the very opposite at game time?

We’re all hypocrites, if not in the above ways, then in some other. Not one of us is qualified to instruct our children in being perfect humans.  But we are all qualified to show them how we keep growing.

So in addition to saying, “Don’t be mean,” I told them how I was that kid once. And that things change. The outsider might be nearer to you than you know. As near as your own mother.

I kept it about that simple, because character isn’t acquired through catchy slogans or eloquent sermons, though both have their place as reminders. Growing up is a process that takes a long time. There aren’t any words to make it shorter.


15 Responses to “More than words”

  1. Neil says:

    That was quite touching, and real. As a non-parent in a blogging world of parents, I frequently ask myself the question, “Weren’t these people kids at one time themselves?” Since I don’t have the experience of being a parental figure, my main reference to childhood is my own. But when I read many blogs about parenting, they frequently sound more like parents trying to win brownie points with each other rather than addressing real family life on the page.

  2. I nodded my head through this entire post, but especially loved these lines:

    Not one of us is qualified to instruct our children in being perfect humans. But we are all qualified to show them how we keep growing.


  3. I have a sign in my classroom and my home that says “Be Nice or Go Away.” I tell them (students and off-spring) that they are not banished; they’re always welcome to come back and be nice at any time. I tell my students (7th and 8th graders) that they are making the stories for their reunions right now. (They don’t get it – they don’t have it in them, just yet, to see beyond today – but I sure wish they did! The world will be a whole lot nicer of a place!)

    • Heather, I’m fairly suspicious of the word “nice,” just because I’ve seen and experienced too much manipulative, destructive and downright mean behavior sugarcoated in “nice.” So I use “kind” instead.

      But I think you and I mean the same thing. And I dig the sentiment. 🙂

  4. Shana says:

    Great post…as usual! I love your insight. With children who have been on both sides of this issue, I appreciate your perspective and thoughts. I hope and pray that the world is getting kinder.

  5. Marie says:

    Reminds me of the time in 9th grade that a neighboring seat mate asked me an innocuous question about some of our schoolwork – as if he thought I was a regular person! I was so used to be ostracized that it amazed me. Counselors in later years have asked me, “Why did they treat you like that?” I’ve always told them with some indignation that it was not my job to explain other people’s bad behavior! But I think it’s still my job to help raise my child’s awareness of ugly dynamics and to err on the side of kindness. (She’s still some years away from really understanding the nuances of interpersonal relations.)

    For my own self, I try to avoid participating in gossip or other popular forms of ridicule, and to voice my distaste as necessary. It’s surprising how much of it exists in popular culture as *entertainment*. Gah. But I too think humankind is evolving, slowly but persistently, just as most individuals are evolving to greater tolerance and kindness. That gives me hope.

    • Marie, I love that you shared that memory. I so connect with it. In writing my memoir, I did come to see that craving approval from unattainable sources has been a lifelong pattern with me. There were always kids who would have been happy to be my friend, but I had to go after the ones “who got away.” Isn’t it crazy that we continue to unpack those few short years for the rest of our lives?

  6. karen says:

    This was so beautiful Kyran. As a mother of two boys I overhear and intercept a lot too. I agree that the word ‘kind’ has a much deeper meaning than ‘nice’. Anyone can be nice. To be kind feels so much more intentional to me.

  7. Sharon says:

    I have been discussing this lately with my friends. Our school district focuses a good deal of energy and resources on character education. While I think the intention is good, it has become a lot of sloguns and posters and labeling everything according to character. Projects and activities and homework. It starts to move away from the basic message of “be a decent person.” Instead, it should be more incorporated into daily life in the classroom and at home. Like you said, kindness and empathy. And just acceptance of differences.

  8. Betsy says:

    Thank you so much for the insight that you provide in this post. I was bullied in middle school verbally and physically-when I read what you have written I realize we were children and the girl who tormented was a child. I haven’t let the experience rule my life, but I have let it color many of my experiences. I think when ever my mind brings up those unpleasant years I will say to myself “we were children” and move on. Thank you Kyran for giving me this gift on my road towards forgiveness. I still do wonder where the adults were that should have been stopping it.

  9. The thoughtfulness behind this post is the reason I read your blog, Kyran. Thank you for choosing this topic to be thoughtful upon.

    I had never thought of the difference between ostracism and bullying, but you’re right–there remains a difference. I’m convinced I was bullied as a kid, however subtlely, though those aren’t prominent memories. Most of my childhood was pleasant. But there were enough instances to make a memoir/research paper on the topic in my last year of college. It was a great purge within the process of becoming an adult.

    Thank you for heightening my awareness. Helping our kids be aware of kindness starts with us as parents: insisting on it from them, yes, but also being kind toward them. The way we form our parental requests and commands, which words we use within earshot and when we think they’re not listening. We can’t guarantee that our kids will be great people or exemplary citizens, but we can encourage and model.

  10. Mariellen says:

    I think kindness is the right approach and not one that is taught often, in my limited experience. I also see ostracism as a kind of bullying, having experienced it myself and also watched a young person near to me go through it and still bear the scars. The self confidence that is undermined is such an important, fragile flower. My view is that not only do we spend much if not all of our lives unpacking things created during our early years as you say, Kyran, but also in my own life I see the opportunity cost imposed by having to do that unpacking – an unwillingness to take the kind of risks that would support, for example, moving from a toxic work environment, or not reaching to fulfill our potential in an area where we have talent and skill to nurture and develop.

    I think there is an element that conscious parents might add to kindness. Not being a parent myself I can’t speak directly of my own experience of parenting but I can speak to my experience as a child and then as a conscious adult. The element is consciously encouraging and supporting people of any age to reach out, test and and try new things, thereby gaining the confidence and resilience of soul, heart and mind that comes from achieving things, however small. Trying new dishes or something creative that you always wanted to try but maybe were afraid to, undermined by the fear of actually finding out you were bad at it..but good at something else. I think the strength of this sort of confidence acts like an insulator against the dings and bashes of life, no matter what our age; it is one of many coping mechanisms that we can lean into in times of feeling we are inadequate or lacking, and realise that its OK to be whatever we are, and to still keep on trying with kindness to ourselves. This has been my experience. Unfortunately it has not been my experience to use consciously until much later in my life. So I feel that the ability to make young people conscious of this skill and encouraging it in as many and varied ways as possible is a practical way of teaching kindness and creativity to others – and ourselves.

    • Mariellen, thank you for this thoughtful comment. I love the notion of teaching kindness to oneself. You are so right — this is a concept that doesn’t come to most of us until much, much later. I will be adding it to my parenting “curriculum.”

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