When should we punish children and when should we let them talk it out—and hope for the best? Galit Breen explains why kindness wins out every time.
Brody came home from school on Friday clutching a Crayola green sheet of paper between his thankfully still tiny fingers. It was his telltale bright blond hair that I saw first. But as he more fully turned the corner at the top of the hill, I saw that he was craning his neck, looking for me. I melted.
“There he is,” Kayli said. Her new middle school schedule means that I get a precious twenty minutes with my oldest girl to hear about her day before the beautiful, albeit overwhelming, noise that her brother and sister bring fills every bit of possible space between us. But for those twenty minutes, it’s just the two of us. “Look at him!” She says, laughing, touching my arm, and I know that she’s happy to see them, too. I do turn to look at him and as he’s walking closer, I note the green paper and the earnest look on his face.
When he reaches us, he falls into my arms. “I am a good citizen,” he says. “Indeed,” I say back, already trying to desperately keep up with his fast-moving brain and words and heart—he’d been home for less than one minute.
Our afternoon routine has been to take our mini goldendoodle, Parker, for a walk after school. This gives me a chance to transition from working to mothering, quiet to noise, and for them to unload their days’ thoughts, stretch their legs, breath, reconnect, and figure out how to maneuver side by side. We call it a “Snack Walk,” because one thing that I very quickly learned when my kids began school is that it doesn’t matter how big their lunch is, they come home starving.
So we went on our Snack Walk and I found out why that green piece of paper was so important and what made Brody a good citizen.
Another student in his class had had a tough day at school and when Brody beat him to the front of the line, he called Brody a salty word, one that surprised me not just that a first grader knew, but knew how to use appropriately. Brody didn’t say anything back to this little boy in the moment, but he did tell his teacher.
His teacher is one of those golden types who you cross your fingers that your little ones will have–she has years of teaching experience perfectly melded with a passion for children and education that hasn’t faded with time. She’s a perfect fit for Brody and we’re all really lucky to have her in our lives. This story is one example of why.
When Brody’s teacher pulled the two boys aside to discuss what had happened, she let them do the talking. The boy with the salty language explained why he was having a bad day. And my little guy? Explained how he understood. He told his buddy that he’s been that sad before and explained when. The two made peace with each other, not via an apology, but through a sharing and noticing and validating of emotion.
It is so easy to focus on kindness, on good citizenship, being a solitary act—something we do for and to others. But a true act of kindness winning is messier than this. It comes in reaction to unkindness, to salty language, if you will. Times when it’s easy, and even approved, to respond with unkindness.
Brody was deemed a good citizen because he reacted with empathy and kindness when faced with someone being mean to him. His teacher did the same–she could have scolded or shamed this little boy. But she didn’t. She validated his feelings and showed him that the world will treat him kindly even when he makes a mistake. Brody was still assertive, he stood up for himself, and his teacher was still a behavior guide, she explained to this little boy that while his feelings were valid, his word choices were not.
We often confuse kindness with inaction. The exact opposite is actually true.
Photo: Davidlohr Bueso/Flickr
This essay first appeared on Galit’s blog These Little Waves.
Check out Galit’s book Kindness Wins here.