Rules? What Rules?

A friend sent me this photo, taken 1910 … and I thought, it was the best BEST example ever, of bending the rules … (or at least those rules that make no sense beyond to those who made them … )

 

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I was reminded of it today, after speaking with a young boy who complained that he got into trouble–yet again–for breaking “another of the teacher’s stupid rules.”

The boy’s mother had her mouth already open to reprimand him for using a word one ‘should not say’ in the context of one’s educators … but I gave her one of my ‘please don’t’ looks … and she took a deep breath and nodded.

“What kind of rules?” I asked.

“Stupid ones,” he grumbled. Then seeing that I was actually waiting to hear an example, he sighed. “Like not being allowed to hold our pencils while we’re reading. She keeps taking points off when I break the rule.”

“Did she tell you why she doesn’t want you to do that?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “because she said so?”

I chuckled. “Fair enough … sometimes grownups say that you should not do things just because they say so … but I was wondering if she ever actually told you why. Sounds to me she maybe has a reason–maybe kids play with their pencils? Drop them a lot and it is distracting? Doodle in the books?”

The boy peered at me with a look that let me know that I have just lost about 200 points of coolness in his view along with several dozen in the IQ department. “Sometimes we’re supposed to write in our books,” he stated, “… anyway, if she said it was for that it would make sense, sort of” he added. “I don’t drop mine. I just hold it. She doesn’t want us to hold the pencils just because.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Just because?”

“Yeah,” he stressed. “She said that we don’t need a pencil in our hands for our brain to read…” the boy pouted. “How does she know what my brain needs for reading? What if the pencil reminds my brain what the letters are?”

Point made.

I actually could see how it could do that.

I told the little guy that if it helps him to hold the pencil when he’s reading, to go ahead and do so.

He looked at me, suspicious. “It’ll get me in trouble.”

“Not if you tell her that I told you it’s okay for you to keep holding it if it helps your brain.” I smiled, more than a tad conspiring.

His eyes grew large, and the grin that followed had enough wattage to light up Manhattan’s night sky.

 

Encourage!

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How many times have you been tempted to point out what needs fixing? Wanted to highlight what is wrong, what “can use a tune-up”, what one should be doing differently, or more of, or with less drama, or with more oomph, more boldness, better self-image, assertion, courage, ease?

We have all been there, prodding someone along with good intentions (and other times with a bit of righteous indignation of “I told you so” and “no wonder you are as you are, if only …”). We see someone stuck, repeating old mistakes, mired in old pattern and fogged-up insight recognition … and we point it out–not to hurt, oh, no–only as an intended kindness. We hope a kick in the right region will do the trick this time.

We mean well, but we forget the price of shaming. We underestimate or look away from the price of boring holes in someone for the sake of our sense of having done something ‘for them’ (when we did it for our own need maybe just as much if not more). Shame stilts. It burrows. It slips whatever good intentions into the cracks between what already feels broken and has it ooze away into the void. It makes the distance from targets loom larger and comparisons ache harder.

Almost no one gets criticized as much as children do. Children bear the brunt of much correction. Often. And in what should be counter-intuitive, the very kids who struggle most with getting something right, are the ones to get the most critic for once again doing it imperfectly, for again being wrong. For not following the directions. Again. For missing something. For not listening well enough, not trying hard enough, not having the right attitude.

When criticizing them, we certainly do teach the children something: we show them we are focused on their errors, not their strengths; on the target, not the path; on the final product, no matter the effort or progress. Critic chips another bit of self-esteem and makes exuberance too pricey to risk finding. It does not build. It hollows out.

Showing the way works better. Breaking down a task to smaller steps aids faster. Pointing out what worked as a path to follow gets farther. Encouragement helps more.

Encouragement does not equal the blind empty phrasing for a mediocre effort with: “this is a masterpiece and you are always the most amazing child ever born and all you do is perfect”–kids smell the shallowness of that a mile away. Praising indiscriminately is as irrelevant as constant criticism. It is white noise. It does not help the child see where her effort mattered not lets her trust that you see a difference and even care to note the true wheat effort from off-handed chaff.

Encouraging means giving balanced credit for an honest effort. It means a fair praise that matches the magnitude of accomplishment for that child at that moment, while still providing firm support when efforts fail. It means letting the child know that you notice. That you see THEM and not only their ability relative to others, even as you help them find a better way to measure up.

Children meet plenty of critic without what we might think we ‘owe’ them as a way of caregiving. They don’t need more people holding mirrors to their flaws. The world will quite surely provide enough of that. Encourage. I’ve never met a child who cannot use a little more.

Some equate critic with being honest. With “saying like it is” and “facing reality” and “toughening up.” This is not honesty. It is boot-camp. Actual honest critic is only one that comes when the words one says (one’s tone, one’s posture–critic is communicated in much more than words), flow from a well of true encouraging. It is so only if the message is imparted with sensitivity and care that ensures it builds, rather than tears down, puts down, whittles, or compares. Only if on the heels of pointing out a place for improvement, there is the vista of all the effort put forth already, a detailing of the next step–and a helping hand.

A rule of thumb: critics abound out there already. Least of them being the inner critic that you’ll instill within a child with alarming speed. Be an encourager. An honest buddy offering support along the roughest patches and a ‘that-a-girl’ when each are overcome.

Encourage. It is nourishment for growing. It is like water on parched land.

“I just let it go”–Bullying, undoing Taboo?

Photo Credit: A.M

I see children. As an integral part of what I do, I talk to them. They talk to me. We discuss stuff. Words, events, stories, happenings, expressions. Language, communication. School. Life.

Oftentimes it becomes an opportunity for all manner of learning. Sometimes I even teach them something (I think that more often than not, I am the one who learns more!)

A girl came in the other day, a preteen with all the loveliness, precocity, and gangly limbs that time of life implies, complete with early social angst over boys, hierarchies and wanting to fit in. She’s a precious girl. Relatively sheltered, only child and doted on. Popular, I know. Loved by teachers. Not the best learner, but she’s gracious about what others do better and tenacious about trying to improve her own results. She had made amazing leaps in the few months I’ve known her.

She has also opened up some more. About what is not often spoken of. The real problems of childhood that are frequently hidden under layers of “fine”, “okay”, and “nothing much.”

Yesterday, she spoke about something that is both a numbing non-stop conversation and taboo: Bullying.

Non-stop in the almost weekly pedagogic instruction for “awareness” and “Zero Tolerance,” the speakers that the school brought in to talk to the students about the wrongs of bullying, the memos to the parents, the signup sheets for pledges, and the warning for absolute intolerance of it in the school. Taboo because it still happens, mostly underground and sneakily, and because in some ways it’s become even harder to bring it up.

She is not the first one to tell me of that snailing-in of bully-tactics. I’ve been hearing it. A lot. The children tell it like it is.

“No one wants to be the kid who gets another kid suspended or worse, thrown out of school!” the children tell me. “What do I need someone’s parents calling mine to find out why I’m making trouble for their kid?” These are schools parents line up to get a child into, and pay plenty for tuition and name recognition. Nothing can be allowed to blot a child’s resume. If there’s a problem, it is best handled quietly. The children feel the pressure, too. They know.

“We’re supposed to take care of it on our own, anyway” they tell me. “The teachers are like: ‘you have got the skills, use them’ or ‘sign the pledge, don’t bully, don’t become a witness, step away.’ It’s words, not action. They don’t really want to get involved. Anyway, half the time you can’t even prove it is bullying, and then you’re like, the bully.”

The kids tell it like it is. It’s tough. It’s complicated. Still, talking helps. Many of them are sick of bullying and are indeed taking action–from within. Like the girl.

She’s not the one in the cross-hairs of verbal torment (bullying in her school is the subtly demolishing kind–no heads in the toilet or smashed glasses or bruises–but eroding stings and code words of soft spoken wounding. Lethal still. We know). It is another girl. Two, actually, and creatively isolated from each other by the bullying company so that they cannot seek counsel with each other. The bullies? Four girls. All popular, great students, teachers’ pets, parents on committees, philanthropy going back to bedrock.

“They don’t say anything really mean,” she tells me quietly, anguished, “kind of. But they still do. It is hard to explain.”

“You are explaining,” I encourage. “Sometimes it is in the how you say things that the intended meaning comes through.”

She nods. “They KNOW things,” she whispers. “Stuff that’s private, what they don’t want others to know, small things, embarrassing stuff … I don’t know how they even find out, but they do, and then they say it, kind of in a joke but I can see it is not funny. Some kids laugh because they want to be popular and some really don’t see that it meant to be sneaky. They’re not all mean girls, those who laugh … some of them are my friends and all, but they laugh, and it makes it worse.”

I nod. I understand.

“The girls being bullied,” she continues, “they’re not really my friends. Not because they are being bullied … I mean, they weren’t my friends before, either. I don’t know why. I don’t really like them much. Do you think that makes me bad?”

I smile. “The very fact that you are wondering about it, tells me that you are not bad. Let alone that I already know you to have a very caring heart.”

She looks at me searchingly, but she knows I mean what I say. “Okay,” she says. I’m glad she doesn’t blush.

“I was thinking about it, about what to do,” she starts.

“Tell me.”

“My other friend said that we could find out bad things about the mean girls and we can tell them that if they kept on being mean we’ll tell everyone … but,” she pauses, “that’ll kind’a make me be a bully, too. I don’t want to.”

I smile. She knows what my smile means–another proof that she is farthest from bad.

“… so I told my friend, that we’ll just hang out more with B and C and be their friends more. Invite them over. Sit with them at lunch kind of stuff. They are a little weird sometimes, though,” she sighs. “One of them kind of gets annoying, you know, grabs your stuff, holds on to you, sticky. You know?”

She pauses. Ponders.

“But maybe it’s because she’s kind’a lonely. Or maybe she’s lonely because she’s weird. I don’t know. I don’t want to be mad at her. I don’t want to be mad at the bully girls, either. They are kind of my friends, too, sometimes. It gets me feeling stuck.”

I nod. Sometimes there’s nothing I can say that the child is not already saying, nothing that I need to add. Just listen. I hear her. She wants to think it out.

“It’s a little better, though,” she brightens. “I think. Today, at lunch, the mean girls wanted to sit with us and I was sure it was because they wanted to be mean to B and C–they were sitting with my friend and me, you know, like I said–and I got all like, mad inside, but then I decided that I didn’t want to be mad in advance. So … I just let it go. And you know what? …”

“What?” (smile)

“They were not mean. They were alright.”

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Photo Credit: A.M.