By K.M. DeBon
A girl comes home from school with tears in her eyes and confusion on her face. She tells her mother that she wasn’t allowed to play with a group of girls at recess; she says that two girls who used to be her ‘friends’ have begun to link arms, turn their backs on her, raise their noses in the air, and exclude her.
Some days, the daughter tells her mom that the girls tease her – telling her that her teeth are yellow, and making fun of the fact that she, like every human being, has hair on her legs. Then there are the days when that daughter comes home saying that she has been pushed. While it is true that some girls push and shove as a way of exerting power, we stereotypically assign physical, aggressive displays of power or control to boys. Girls have a different agenda, manifesting a more emotional, psychological, and manipulative form of dominance on the playground, and in our classrooms. These wounds, while not physical, are long-lasting and create scars that never fully heal. In fact, the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain is activated when we experience social pain, such as being shunned from a group, being picked last on a team, or being excluded from recess play.
As I talk with parents, observe playground interactions, or simply notice a ‘virtual’ world that has become less civilized and gentle, I will risk sounding naive by calling for us all to create cultures of kindness for our children, in our homes, neighbourhoods, schools, and communities.
It sounds like such a simple value: instilling The Golden Rule, inclusivity, acceptance, and civility in our kids. However, somewhere along the line, these simple societal norms, expectations, or codes of conduct have gotten lost. My grandpa used to say that hem lines and hair dos will go up and down, but good manners will always be in fashion. Oh, how I wish that were still true.
In an age of anti-bullying campaigns, where students wear pink shirts and create posters promoting kindness, I wonder if children are becoming de-sensitized to these abstract concepts because they don’t fully understand what the abstraction looks like, in concrete terms. Most of our communication is non-verbal so, while words hurt, what really breaks our bones are the sticks and stones that come from eye rolls, crossed arms, noses lifted in the air, sneers, and backs turned away from us. Exclusion, rejection, possessiveness, and territorial or tribal instincts send messages to children that they are not welcome, that they don’t belong.
Cyber-bullying; where even reticent children feel empowered to become nasty, or even hateful. They can hide behind a virtual mask of anonymity. This is even more disconcerting, because the receiver of mean-spirited texts is so easily targeted, a victim of digital gang culture.
Standing up to any form of unkindness or bullying takes courage, integrity, and a moral compass. A wise philosopher named Constantine once said that wrong is still wrong, even if everybody is doing it and right is still right, even if you are the only one doing it. That means standing up to mean or aggressive behaviour: subtle, overt, physical, or psychological. Doing right means being that Good Samaritan you would like to meet in your time of trouble. Doing unto others as you would have done unto you. Being the light in someone’s darkness, or the rainbow in someone’s cloudy day.
As parents, we set the tone. Let’s cultivate cultures of kindness so our kids can follow our lead.