Teaching kindness starts in small ways. As adults, it is challenging to reign in emotion and negativity on a daily basis and so children may hear and see things that are not kind, positive and gentle. Children learn by example; how we react to situations, people, and circumstances becomes their guideline for behavior. One of the things that we tend to forget is that little ears are listening all the time and soaking in information. Children do not have the mental maturity to effectively process everything they hear. This is why they often misinterpret situations and assume things that are not completely true. However, unaware of their misinterpretation, they do not clarify their misinformation.
Think for a moment about comments that you might say in front of your child such as, “I can’t stand her, she drives me crazy … Did you see what she was wearing last night? … they’re white trash … I’m going to kill him … he’s such a jerk.” When we speak disrespectfully or negatively about other people in front of our children even in a joking manner, we are teaching them that this is normal and acceptable behavior. Knowing that children don’t alway interpret situations and conversations effectively, imagine what they are thinking if you continualisly make negative comments about certain people? They may begin to believe that it is okay to treat some people respectfully but that you don’t have to be kind and respectful to everyone. In essence, they are being taught that targeting someone is acceptable behavior.
Bullying in schools is a major issue and I can’t help but believe that part of it has to do with parenting. If we are not deliberately teaching our children to love with acceptance and treat everyone with kindness, who will? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one out of every four students report that they are bullied. Though bullies are often potrayed as physically and verbally abusive to their victims, there are also those who bully in a microaggressive way. According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Bullying can be subtle and may be done in such a way that only the victim knows what is going on. As David Rivera states, “Many bullies do not use overt brute strength to overpower their targets, but rather engage in intimidating behaviors that are oftentimes covert and hard to detect.”
This year, I am working with 6th grade. It is my first experience working in a middle school. I love these students; I celebrate in their successes, give them extra support when they need it and love to laugh with them. However, it has been a very eye opening experience when it comes to how subtle bullying can really be. Our goal as a team of teachers is that our students would operate as a community, treating each other with kindness and respect. The school has brought in guest speakers to address the topic of bullying. The students all signed a class contract which included how they were to treat their classmates.
Once a week, I have lunch duty. I watch how my students interact with each other, how they choose their seats, how they like to save seats for certain people and actively avoid sitting with other classmates. I’ve seen the look of hesitation and uncertainty on the face of a student when they can’t find a place they feel comfortable sitting. It is heartbreaking, it is terrible and it is not okay.
Recently we found out that a student had been receiving harassing and derogatory messages for some time. The student threw them away, so there was no evidence at first. However, this student received another note and gave it to the teachers as evidence. The note said, “kill urself.” I don’t feel that I can even put into words just how horrific this is, how terrible. I am equal parts angry and sad. My students are eleven and twelve, how can one of them have that much hate towards another student? How can they be that disconnected from empathy?
The past couple of days as this has unfolded the words, “Teach them to be kind,” kept running through my head. We have to start when they’re young, we have to really think about the things that we are saying and doing around them. We have to be deliberate about connecting with our children and teaching them to have empathy and compassion. In her article, Acts of Kindness: Teaching Children to Care, Dr. Marilyn Price-Mitchell writes, “While kindness might seem pretty straightforward to learn, it’s a bit more complex than meets the eye. We don’t make children happy when we simply enable them to be receivers of kindness. We escalate their feelings of happiness, improve their well-being, reduce bullying, enrich their friendships, and build peace by teaching them to be givers of kindness.”
So let’s consider the words we use and the conversations we have in front of our children. Are we teaching kindness or are we exhibiting negativity towards others? Are we practicing compassion and forgiveness? Let’s teach our children to be kind, let’s show them how to be builders of peace.