Saturday, September 10, 2011


My mother-in-law tells the story about some boys bullying her when she was young. 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 child 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 with words.

(Note: Yesterday's post, Hitting, raised a lot of questions and requests for more information both in the comments here and on Facebook that this post doesn't address. I already had this one "in the can," so to speak, as I'm scrambling to get ready for our first day of school next week. I'll really try to get to those questions tomorrow.)

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Amy said...

We use the "Stop" method at our school as well, and find it to be very powerful. We even make small hand held stop signs for children who are less verbal and more timid. I have seen children at the beginning of the year run away and hide from the conflict, to standing up for themselves at the end of the year by firmly saying "Stop, I don't want you do that." In our older classrooms we work hard at learning what to say next. "What do you want Johnny to stop?" "I don't want him to take my marker." "Tell Johnny, stop. I don't want to you take my marker" This has helped to encourage the principle of using strong words for the children in Kindergarten and beyond! Thanks for sharing your message.

Unknown said...

Wonderful! When my girls were in daycare, they were taught to use words in situations such as this. It's so much more effective and seemed to instill much more confidence in the kids.

rosesmama said...

After 1st grade? I-messages. These work as soon as kids understand how to formulate them, and I still use them with problem co-workers, as middle-aged civil servant.

It hurts when you kick me. I don't want you to do that. I want you to tell me if I'm in your way instead of pushing me.


Unknown said...

Another thought of why it stops working is that others outside your wonderful playyard don't use this instruction. So when you leave an area where this is understood and used and enter into a world where it isn't understood and used, it's not effective anymore. If everyone would just teach this followed by the "I" messages and such . . . I wonder where we'd be?

Arual said...

I seriously have the desire to pack my bags and move to Seattle so my children can attend your preschool. I'm actually planning to home/un-school, but what I have read on your blog is very reminiscent of the values I want my children to have. Thank you for the wonderful ideas and your incredibly thoughtful approach to children.

Jennifer said...

I must tell you that the more I read your blog, the more I love it. Thank you, thank you for this post. Its wisdom will definitely stay with me.

Amber said...

I am so touched by your use of the MLK quote. I want to instill this in every child...
We are having children who are telling other children (on the playground...the child world) that they have guns even going as far as saying "I will kill" in the same sentence. As a teacher and a parent (with a child in this wonderful school) of a 3 year old dealing with these children in her class, my heart is broken at having to define these (what she clearly understands to be) powerful terms.

I have used a peace table in my room for the past year where I have children do their own conflict resolution. It may seem simplistic but when one child is upset about block being knocked over, or being pinched etc... saying to the other child," I am upset that you did this" is so powerful. The peace table is that free space where they each have to listen to one another and I ask the child who did the act to simply say, "I understand" because I find that just being heard that they were hurt is a lot of the conflict. (I also realized sorry truly has no meaning at 3 other than a term they are told to say)
This year the peace table is moving slowly...the issues are taking more creative thought. I think the approach you use may help to empower my kids to understand that the peace table is not limited to one spot in the classroom but a power they can carry wherever they need.

As a parent I did wish my child's teacher would try this approach because I think it does take bravery to speak your anger...your disappointment. I wish I had that same bravery to speak up to the parents of the children that use these violent terms so easily...I guess I just want for all our kids to be able to stay innocent just a little while longer.
Thank you for insight and thought.

Firuzi said...

Wonderful. We needed this!! It makes so much sense and while we've been trying to teach our 3 year old to say "No!" "Don't hit (or whatever else the other kid is doing)" , this 4 letter word STOP is better and will make all the difference. I am going to pass this post round in our playgroup.

Thanks a lot for your wonderful post.

Let the Children Play said...

"Stop" is a powerful word in our preschool too. I love it when a quiet child with a small voice discovers that a loud "stop" can work wonders.

The Knitty Gritty Homestead said...

We consciously respect the word STOP in our home too (because many parents don't...for instance, in a wrestle or tickle situation)...STOP is such a powerful word!'s the next question: when do you write and publish your book? I know I'm probably not the first to ask, but through my facebook "shares", I hear from loads of my friends that they LOVE your blog and check it have so much wisdom to share that we don't often find in parenting/teaching books. I'd line up for a copy!

Leslie said...

Love this post = the Martin Luther King quote is so powerful - I mean it's talking about real problems of violence and hate in our world, but it starts in preschool and thinking through these beliefs we hold as parents. The lesson of using words to solve problems, has the potential to change the world. I also love the "stop" technique - I'm going to teach my boys that.

Anonymous said...

I think that every time I read one of these posts.