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.