Be Kind to Be Free: Escaping the Bully Free Zone

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I stand on a stage in a large, echoey cafeteria. Beneath me is a sea of children sitting on the tile floor.  I ask the question I always ask when I begin Force Field for Good, my singing assembly for kindness.“Why be kind?”  The answers range from a kindergartner who says ,

“You have to be nice to people, so that they will be nice to you?” to a fifth  grader who says,”You have to be nice to people so you don’t get in trouble.” This is my favorite part to of the assembly because it is the part where I get a read on the culture of the school.  Ironically, I’ve found it is often the schools that have defined kindness for their students are the schools where the question, “Why be Kind?”is the most problematic.

This is one of those schools. I could tell from the moment I entered its main hallway and noticed  two giant posters. The first proclaims, This School is a Bully Free Zone; the second,  Learning is Our Number 1 Priority.   Am I the only one to see the irony here? If kindness were the goal, perhaps loving should be the number one priority, or caring, or even children?

On the walls of the echoey cafeteria, quotes from famous athletes exhort the importance of determination, as if grit itself  were a moral virtue. Wayne Gretzky: You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. Babe Ruth: You just can’t beat the person who never gives up.

I find myself talking back to these quotes.  Wayne, you say that you miss 100 percent of the shots you  don’t take, but isn’t it good to share the puck once in a while? You don’t have to hog it  to win, do you? Don’t we achieve more through cooperation?

Babe, I know you don’t want me to give up, but what if I am doing something wrong? In that case, its isn’t it healthy give up, to say sorry, to ask for forgiveness?  How will we ever learn if we never give up? How will we grow to love each other more perfectly if our individual pursuits always supersede our need for connection? Giving up would be a virtue for the Harvey Weinsteins of the world.  

Like many others across the country, this school has identified the lack of resilience as a problem and purchased a “leadership” program to inspire children to try harder.  The program has an acronym all children have memorized and will willingly shout at the principal’s command. Memorizing acronyms that can be shouted back at you have become a necessary component of these systems. Perhaps there is something wrong with me, but it’s always disturbing to hear a room of children barking out words like caring, respect, and helpfulness on command. I know the intentions of these efforts are good and that most administrators think these programs bring unity and a common language, but I also think that deep down inside, they know it’s all window dressing. To truly understand kindness, citizenship, the golden rule, or respect for others, students must do more than memorize a few words and shout them back. True learning has less to do with obeying rules and much more to do with living by a single principle. Human beings have free will, and only when they act freely do their actions have meaning.

Here is a the question I wish these school leaders would ask.  When we teach kindness, are we teaching children compliance or are we teaching children agency? Are we teaching students to obey our rules, or are we teaching them to reflect and act for themselves, to apply the one golden rule in any given situation?

I learned this from Colleen Mestdagh, a second grade teacher in Michigan, who wrote to me after sharing my song, “Know your Higher Self,” with her students.  The song’s chorus, which Colleen taught her students with sign language, transformed the social emotional learning in her classroom. It goes like this.

Know your higher self

Take it off the shelf

Give it room to play

Every single day,

Forget about the fight

Reach for what is right

You can teach yourself to fly

When you want to cry.

According to Colleen, after learning the song and discussing words, her students began to reflect about their higher selves  and whether they were using them. What’s more, they spontaneously began applying the concept to characters in novels and movies. One observed, The character Woody in Toy Story 2 was being his higher self when he went  to rescue Wheezy the penguin, who was about to be sold in the yard sale, but not being his higher self when he got mad and jealous of Buzz Lightyear.  Another noticed, The character Jack in the book Wonder  was being his higher self when he makes friends with Augie but not being his higher self when laughs along with the bullies at Augie’s expense.. Connections with characters lead to connections with life experience.   Another student reflected, I was not being my higher self today when I refused to let the new kid sit with me at the lunch table but when I helped my sister with her homework I was being my higher self.

Colleen looked at each one of the  class rules her students had created together at the beginning of the school year with her guidance.  In a flash of inspiration, she realized that her students could not truly follow any of these rules without practicing being their higher selves.  So, she reasoned, why not just forget all these little rules and replace them with one simple rule not just to follow, but to live by. Be your higher self.

Colleen said that what came next was more than miraculous.  In the past, children would follow rules or they would break them.  Always there was finger pointing. “He didn’t follow the rule. She didn’t; follow rule 3.” After these crimes were committed, students expected Colleen, their  almighty teacher and protector, to dole out the punishment. Without a list of rules to follow, everything shifted and the victim and the perpetrator of the crime were left asking themselves one simple question, “Was I being my higher self?” It was no longer a straightforward decision of who was good and who was bad.  Suddenly it was not so clear who was to blame. If a student pushes another student, he is breaking a serious rule, but what if that violence came about because the victim of the pushing had teased the perpetrator? Both students share in some of the blame, and both students can take some of the responsibility.   I wasn’t being my higher self when I teased you. Sorry. I wasn’t being my higher self when I pushed you. Sorry.

What surprised Colleen the most was that having one rule gave her students more agency to work out their own conflicts. The locus of control shifted from the all powerful teacher judge to the students, who came to her more to confess their personal failures than to point fingers at each other.  Eventually, Colleen created a mediation space in her classroom where students could talk through their problems without her assistance. Self reflection became a habit. Her second graders were no longer following rules. They were living by simple rule that was not easy to follow: Be your higher self.

At Franconia Elementary School in Souderton, Pennsylvania,where the school embraced the Force Field for Good, bus drivers and other adults make one comment on the changed behavior of the students. They seem calmer.  When a  little boy said to the bus driver,“Could I sit up front?” the bus driver asked him why.  He replied,”I think I will make better choices if I sit there.” Principal Lana noticed that children seemed not to be just following rules anymore.  The one rule gave them control. There was no need for a bully-free zone at the school because children were practicing and reflecting on kindness wherever they went and whatever they did. She also noted that the concept of the bully free zone often didn’t apply to places like the bus, where no one was looking.  Children were taking more responsibility for their own behavior everywhere.

As I reflect on Colleen’s class and what I have seen in other classes that  have embraced the Force Field for Good, I realize what bothers me most about those quotes from Wayne Gretzky and Babe Ruth is that they frame success for children in binary terms. You try hard and you succeed. You don’t try and you fail. Life is either or.  When we apply this type of thinking to behaviors like kindness, we end up with the bully-free zone. What immediately happens in such cultures is that children, start pointing fingers. “You are being a bully or you are not being a bully. Bullying is seen as a crime and the word itself has been given more power than it deserves.

Imagine a world where there are no bully-free zones, a world where each person is responsible for their own behavior and able to admit to each other when they inevitably screw up.  Imagine a world where you are never just good or bad, a world where we all know we are seen for who we truly are: works in progress. This is a world where children are safe to fail and not afraid to say, “I’m sorry.” Success is no longer about winning. Success is about telling the truth, learning to admit personal failure, accepting our humanity  and seeking redemption from each other.

In  this world,  when you ask the question, Why be kind?, you will have your answer.

Be kind to be free.

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