Dear Dr. Debbie,
As a parent I worry about many things that could hurt my children, including gun violence.
Sending them to school in bulletproof vests seems way too far down the line for prevention. What strategies could parents and teachers use to reduce or deter the psychological causes of violence?
Advocate For Peace
This is a timely question for Kids at Hope Week and World Kindness Day (November 13).
Social isolation and a disconnection from societal standards are warning signs in children that adults should pay attention to. Schools, for better and for worse, teach children whether they have value among their peers. And schools, tragically, can be the target when an individual seeks revenge for not fitting in.
No Child Left Unnoticed
I read about a teacher’s approach to preventing gun violence which addresses noticing which children are not making the grade socially. Pulled to action by the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999, every Friday she asks her fifth grade students to write the names of four classmates they’d like to sit with in the coming week. She lets the children know that she might not be able to honor every request. She also asks them to write down the names of students who have exhibited good citizenship. After everyone has left for the day, she reads over the names looking for patterns – students not on their classmates’ lists.
A clever teacher can spot the “invisible” or rejected children in her class and work her special magic to help them improve their social skills and acceptability, even if it means a little manipulation through a seating chart based on “admirers.” Parents, too, can be on the lookout for the awkward, the abrasive, the reclusive, or any kind of child who would benefit from the caring intervention of an adult.
As a parent you have many opportunities to model empathy so that your children, too, will treat their peers with kindness. By example, you are showing your children how to make people feel welcome and included, especially when they don’t. In Denmark, empathy is part of the school curriculum . For one hour each week, children share their problems with the class and compassionately brainstorm for solutions.
Models of empathy and kindness can also be found in children’s books which you can read and discuss with your children. Sign up to be a guest reader for your children’s classes so the good messages of these authors can be spread.
Good parenting includes knowledge of and access to the children in your children’s lives. This might be through volunteering at school, scouts, sports, or other interest-based activities as well as connecting to the children who are as at home in your kitchen as your own family is. Show your interest in their interests, their struggles, and their dreams. Schools, organizations, and communities that practice the culture of Kids at Hope make sure that every child connects to caring adults outside the family. Take a potentially disconnected child under your wing to share cooking, gardening, or a home improvement project. Be the adult who, in the language of Kids at Hope, believes that all children are capable of success, no exceptions. Through these meaningful, sustainable relationships with caring adults, the treasures that exist inside each child can shine.
Too often a child hears about his deficiencies rather than his strengths. Grades, scores, and awards are often public comparisons which label some children as winners and some children (even when they aren’t individually named) as losers. On the other hand, when an adult can patiently (and privately) guide a child to develop his abilities, and celebrate his improvements, that child knows he has won a challenge. An adult can also assert that while we can’t all be good at everything, everyone is good at something. Stick close when a school or scout project demands a variety of skills that no single child has all of, but that the potentially disconnected child certainly possesses one of. Group activities that rely on collaboration highlight how different strengths can be combined for successful outcomes.
Select Pairings and Groupings
Use your knowledge of the personalities and social dynamics among the children in your life to maneuver them into good match-ups. Some combinations of children work better than others to foster respect for one another. A bully takes advantage of an unconfident child, negatively impacting them both. A better match for the domineering child might be a confident and easy-going child, or better yet group him with two children who are skilled at teamwork and compromise. Another tactic is to give a starring role to the child who tends to push other children around (or the child who is fearful of interacting with others), such as distributing supplies or recording a list of ideas generated by the group.
Even though I knew no one the first day of kindergarten, it was easy for me to make conversation and make friends. Early in the school year my teacher brilliantly paired me with a quiet, friendless boy to carry the milk and graham crackers from the cafeteria to our classroom. I was among the smallest children in the class and this boy was by far the largest. As we silently carried the heavy bin of food back to our classroom I appreciated his physical strength. I realized that even though he rarely spoke, he had value. I remember looking out for him after that to see if he had someone to play with, even confidently inviting him to play with me and my friends. Our teacher knew how to channel the power of influential children to raise the social status of peers whose worth might otherwise have been overlooked.
Notice the children who are going unnoticed. Give children examples to follow of compassion. Dig for the treasure in each child and help them to shine. Adjust social dynamics long before an outcast is created.
Chesapeake Children’s Museum will host a World Kindness Day program for middle school students, Wednesday, November 13 at 3:30 pm. This free event will be facilitated by staff from the Anne Arundel Conflict Resolution Center. Register at: 410-990-1993 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for more parenting advice by Debbie Wood.
What do you think? Email your comments or questions to Dr. Debbie at editor[at]chesapeakefamily.com.