Friday, September 10, 2010

Growing Brave Children

My mother-in-law tells the story about some boys bullying her when she was a preschooler. Her father was a manufacturer of orthopedic devices. His solution was to create a set of steel toe-inserts for her shoes. The next time the boys bullied her she was to kick them in the shins. Family legend has it that she broke at least one bone. And thus, the bullying was handled.

Growing up, this was the prevailing message, especially to us boys. Our books were full of stories of weaker kids learning to fight or otherwise taking pointed, lesson-dispensing revenge on their tormenters. Even Sheriff Andy Taylor, one of the top TV dads at the time, advised little Opie to fight for his milk money, otherwise the bully would never stop. And he was the law. This message was everywhere.

Sheriff Teacher Tom

There’s a kind of obvious operatic justice in this approach, and while we would all be scandalized to learn that our child’s classmate had come to school equipped with steel toe-inserts, it’s hard not to sympathize with the idea that one’s child can give as good as he gets.

But let’s be honest, it’s a kind of frontier justice that simply doesn’t play in the modern world. I mean seriously, just think of what would happen if a four-year-old was discovered with steel toe-inserts?

We don’t live in the land of legend, and I doubt we ever did. Those who let their fists do the talking have always been in the minority. Real talking, honestly and responsibly, has always been the only practical solution.

One of my proudest moments as a teacher came a couple years ago. Esme held a bucket of water and Malcolm stood temptingly beside her. She wasn’t the first child to give into that temptation and dump water on her friend, but what happened next blew me away. Malcolm turned to her and shouted, “You dumped water on me! That makes me mad! Now I have to go change clothes!”

I’d been rushing to intervene, but these words stopped me in my tracks. As he marched off to find the dry clothes in his cubby, Esme threw herself onto the ground, face between her hands.

Holy cow. This was as powerful as any kick to the shin and it was done with an honest and responsible use of words.

If Woodland park uses a steel toe-insert, it’s the forceful use of the word, Stop!

“If someone is hurting you,” I ask at Circle Time, “What do you say?”

And all together the children show their palms forcefully and say, “Stop!”

“If someone is scaring you, what do you say?”


“If someone is taking something from you, what do you say?”


"And if someone says "stop" to you, what do you do?"


There are nuances to the rule and practice is necessary, but I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of this technique through kindergarten; it even works on strangers at a playground. My daughter Josephine, who had mastered the technique in preschool, informed me that it stops working in 1st Grade, but the principle of using words lives on.

I think that our Circle Time question holds true throughout our lives: “If someone is hurting you or scaring you, what do you say?”

“You’re just trying to hurt my feelings!”

“I’m going to walk away from this!”

“I don’t like the way you’re treating me!”

“I won’t be bullied!”

Standing and fighting is an irrelevant response to conflict. Being clever, sarcastic or insulting has nothing to do with anything. Inflicting wounds in response to being wounded only makes sense in the mythological world where the “bad guy” learns a lesson through the forceful application of a shiner.

In the real world, a violent response, a hurtful response, nearly always just escalates matters.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate . . . Returning violence for violence multiples violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ultimately our steel toe-insert legends appeal to us because they bespeak bravery. But speaking honestly and responsibly takes far more courage than an irrational, emotional resort to violence.

And raising brave children is really what that mythology is all about. We can do it without the violence.

(Reposed, with revisions, from 7/7/09)

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Deb said...

This reminds me very much of a Montessori technique I'm trying(!) to use with my kids. In addition I'm teaching my big girl to talk as loudly as she can, to make sure other people know what is happening and can back her up.

Unfortunately, I'm hitting up against all our cultural constructions of 'good girls' not making a fuss and being quiet in class. It was heartbreaking the other day to see her trying to cope with some kids destroying the tower she was building and not able to do anything because the teacher wasn't there, but she was able to go to the teacher when she returned and report that some things had been moved on the desk. She already has the idea that playing quietly is more important than standing up for herself, as is following the rules about the desk. I'm really not sure what to do, lots more repetition and role playing I suppose.

Jackie said...

thanks for this post. I am not a teacher, but a mom to 3 kids age 5 and below. My 2 boys are fighting like crazy, and although we tell them not to hit or fight it continues. I like the simplicity of "stop" that the 5 year old and 2 year old can hopefully use with out hits or kicks, and we will try this again. I love your posts Teacher Tom. You rock.

glassgirl said...

Tom - I think I recall posting when you first wrote this. Yes, I too got parental help when I was a kid. When we moved to inbred rural PA in the 2nd grade, my mom, oldest of 7 kids, advised me to punch the nose of the girl who wouldn't let me sit down on the bus. I still remember her showing me how to make a tight fist. It sure worked. I only regret that I cannot go back to those years knowing what I know now - that there were no surveillance cameras & you could get away with anything. There was a family down the road that made my life hell & I can tell you for a fact that if I could relive it, I'd have some dessicated fingers stashed in my house to bring a nostalgic smile to my face in moments of reminiscence, & they'd be institutionalized.

I think the idea of using words "stop!" is good - it is assuredly a tool I was not taught. But I'd put forth that our slog down the path of behavioral evolution is, like tolerance for gays, casual acceptance of evolution, & yoga mats in a spectrum of colors, accepted as common sense in the educated & liberal bubbles of cities, but is as foreign as shrimp forks in the rural climes. Those kids who hassled me would not have been reigned in by their parents. Heck, their dad was throwing poisoned dead rabbits in our yard hoping to kill our dog. Just because we moved there. So many people respond only to physical threats. I deeply wish for the day when people will actually use their brains to figure out problems, & we should all work for that, but I fear the tipping point is far, far away.

glassgirl said...

On a related note, I think studying martial arts is a superb way for kids to find inner balance. You're not slowed down by fear when you know you can defend yourself (& we know bullies can instinctively read fear & seek out those as victims), & a good sensei will teach you that fighting is a last resort, not a first response. Finally, if one must fight, training will allow you to use only the necessary amount of force, thus disabling your opponent & avoiding injury for all.

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

One of the social workers at our school has a beautiful ritual she does called community meeting. She sets the parameters and boundaries so it is safe. She then sets up a social interaction where children , if something is troubling them, or something is troubling an adult, can make a "request" of a person or persons. So, for example, a child might say, I want to make a request. Henry, when we are outside, and I try to join your games, you make fun of my size, and then everyone does and I don't like it."
She coaches through the conversation and other children can add. The "peer pressure" on the person receiving the request to stop, becomes humbled or outed, but in a very safe way. I have watched her do these meetings and it is powerful. After a few months, I overheard children making requests without her present.
Thanks for this important post. It is with care, observation and teaching alternatives & empowerment that we can make deep non-violent change ripple outwards.
Your images are beautiful punctuation marks throughout the post too.