Feeling mean

I wrote a little book for Amy today. It’s by no means perfect or even well-thought out, but it might be food for her thought.

She has been showing quite a mean streak lately, as well as accusing / complaining about others being mean. She’s been having conflicts at school and often not being able to solve them, especially with one friend in particular.

I suppose we tend to think about how to help kids deal with meanness from others more than we think about how to help mean kids.

How do we best support kids who feel mean and do mean things sometimes?

How do we maintain a positive image of the child with hope and confidence, remembering that meanness is not an inherent quality but a response to some kind of hurt or need?

How do we handle things when children get into a conflict, either with us or with another child?

I’ve been thinking about time and space, and about enzymes.

First of all, conflict isn’t a bad thing. All relationships, except the most superficial, will experience conflict. The process of working through conflict resolution can be deeply empowering and bring new depth and strength to a friendship, as each participant learns to peacefully pursue their own interests and to kindly consider the interests of the other, and to eventually arrive at a mutually satisfying solution.

It’s tempting for teachers and parents to try to solve children’s conflicts as quickly and smoothly as possible. We find them disruptive, a hindrance. We don’t often have the patience for the long and tedious give and take that conflict resolution often requires. We’d rather impose our own solution, or avoid the problem by separating the kids.

Sometimes separation is necessary, when one or both children is not in the frame of mind to participate in problem-solving. They may need time and space alone, or they may need time and space with a supportive adult or another friend, something to restore their sense of warmth and safety, goodwill, flexibility, willingness to assume positive intent, and desire for peace and friendship.

Other times separation might inadvertently teach children that conflict is bad and must be avoided, that they are incapable of resolving their own conflicts, and that they need the authoritarian intervention of an adult.

From what I remember of high school biology, an enzyme works by creating and holding a space for a reaction — a chemical process — to take place. Without the support of the enzyme, the reagents might never stay close enough long enough to finish the process.

When a teacher or parent can play the role of an enzyme — keeping the children close, supporting them in their efforts, guiding but not directing their process — kids can really arrive at good solutions. It might take a loooong time, with a lot of setbacks and stalemates along the way. It’s worth sticking it out.

It’s not easy work. No one likes to see a mean or violent streak in a child, especially their own child. We want to push away meanness and mean people, condemn them, require them to stay away until they can somehow become kind again. When we do try to stick with a kid who’s struggling with meanness, we might be tempted to think we’re enabling them, reinforcing the meanness, letting them get away with it. It’s hard enough when kids are being mean to one another — sometimes it’s even harder when they’re being mean to us — especially if they’re quite persistent!

I’m leaning on the Hand in Hand listening tools in my efforts to help Amy with her meanness struggle.

I have a listening partner for myself, so that I can work through my own feelings, triggers, upsets about her and the mean things she does. Feeling heard and supported helps clear my head a bit and make space, to restore my sense of her goodness and my desire to be on her side.

I have special time with Amy every day. I set a timer for twenty minutes, and for that whole time I’ll do anything she wants to do, as long as it’s safe. (I give myself permission to not do things that are really upsetting for me — that’s a different kind of safety issue — but I try to really be open and willing to try anything as much as I can.) Special time shows her that she’s important and interesting, that I delight in her and take interest in her interests. It builds safety and warmth and connection.

I stay-listen when she’s upset, whenever I can. I stay close, with warmth and confidence, while she cries, thrashes, yells, bangs, and so on. If I have to, I hold onto a hand that’s trying to hit or throw something. I occasionally murmur some reassurance that I’m staying with her and not leaving her, that she’s safe, and that things will be good again. It is sometimes amazing to see how she emerges from this sort of thing with renewed grace, cooperation, and peace.

I’m still working on the other two tools, which are more challenging for me.

One is play-listening, which is a sort of combination of things that bring laughter and things that involve physical closeness. Pillow fights, chasing games, piggyback rides, that sort of thing. Laughing is another great way to relieve emotional tension. Physical interaction reaches the limbic, emotional part of the mind — much more effective than exhortations and lectures, since kids simply don’t have access to their rational minds when they’re upset.

The other is setting limits. I’m okay with setting limits around most things, but so much of what’s challenging with Amy is verbal stuff. With an ordinary limit, like “No, we’re not going to have a snack right now; dinner will be ready in half an hour,” it’s relatively easy to first listen to how the child wants a snack, set and hold the limit that it’s not the proper time for a snack, and then listen more as the child responds to the limit. That second listening can be play-listening, stay-listening, or something else. But when you’re setting a verbal limit, like “I want you to answer me with respectful words and a respectful voice,” it’s hard to know how to hold the limit AND listen to the response. I think with verbal things the listening is more important than trying to enforce the limit. It’s possible to remain firm about expecting respect, while listening to rude responses about that expectation. But it IS challenging.

There are other good resources for this kind of work to support kids who struggle with meanness.

Here’s a great story about how two girls solved a conflict with the support of their teacher, and how the results are so much bigger than a solution to the particular conflict.

And now that I’ve finished reading Children who are not yet peaceful, I have some more quotations to share.

Author Donna recalls the conversation with three boys, one of whom was interfering with the work of the other two. The boys were too angry at first to deal with the problem directly, so everyone moves into third person:

“He’s annoying, and sometimes really mean…”
“What does he do that’s so annoying? Describe it to him clearly, and then say what you’d like instead.”
At times like these I speak in the third person of a child who has not become assimilated into the community or who has chosen a role that doesn’t benefit him or the class. I work gradually toward getting the children to communicate directly to one another. I have found that direct address can be harsher than the third person and too strong for a struggling child to bear in the beginning. Third-person discussion allows a child to stand aside and listen to both the anger and the love coming his way. It allows him to look at himself through the eyes of others without bearing the brunt of direct confrontation. My use of the third person slows down the process and makes time to introduce sensitive reflection on motives and needs, responses and remedies. (98)

“A well-informed, ever-vigilant parent with a full and valid set of childrearing ideals can produce a very neurotic child. ‘No, you can’t spend the night with Johnny. You know he watches too many violent TV shows and eats too much junk food. We don’t approve of his family. You’re lucky we don’t have computer games in this house, and we never let you have toys of violence.’

‘You want to spend the night with Travis? Let’s have him over and make homemade pizza and a big salad. Shall we have Danny and Louis over too? We can play board games tonight. Tell them to bring their roller blades for morning when it’s cool.’ This dad has set the stage for the kind of life he knows is best for his son without preaching to his child or judging others. His son will think it’s more fun to be a part of his family and easily do without the harmful things other children have” (113).

(I have a lot of growing to do in this kind of thing!)

One thing I find rather harsh in this book is the author’s attitude toward the other teachers at her own school and other schools. I wonder why there isn’t more support for the adults to make the same kinds of growth the kids are supported to make.

“Now I wished I had never sought the counsel of this teacher… I left unsatisfied and unsure that I could rely on the weak assurance I had received. Approaching a child’s development of responsibility, honesty, and truthfulness as a process is more difficult for some teachers than for others. This teacher had struggled to overcome an authoritarian personality and a confrontational manner that were both cloaked in a charismatic charm, making it difficult to recognize and address them. Why had I, by seeking advice, presented this teacher with something at which success was so unlikely?…

“Some teachers find it extremely difficult to work in a developmental way, when their personalities, education, and socialization have prepared them to work in the traditional way. Some teachers cannot make the paradigm shift, regardless of the passion fueling their desire and effort to do so” (178).

That’s pretty discouraging! What if I’m one of those people who can’t parent in a truly developmental way, even though I really want to learn to do so? Surely there are ways to provide for and support the necessary growth and change?

“Because of their galvanizing charge, I consciously avoid using certain words such as ‘truth,’ ‘lie,’ ‘liar,’ ‘admit,’ ‘confess,’ ‘blame,’ ‘ashamed,’ and ‘guilty.’ I think of the child as being in process of developing a relationship with truth and of coming to distinguish it from and prefer it to security, wishes, expediencies, and self-gratifications. Every experience a child has and every behavior he exhibits can be employed to assist him along his individual path of development, if adults use calm, clear thinking, deep respect, and loving feelings and are committed to an alliance with the child’s spirit…

“Everything a child thinks, says, and does makes perfect sense in the context of his own interpretation of his experience. For an adult to judge a child’s behavior harshly is to carve a chasm between the child and the adult. If the child attempts to leap the chasm and align himself with the adults, accepting their harsh judgments, he betrays the integrity of his interpretation of his own experience, placing the chasm within his own being. If, on the other hand, the child aligns himself with his own experience and rejects the adults’ harsh judgments, he begins living beyond the chasm and without the security of adult moral guidance. Or a child might exhaust himself straddling the chasm by feigning acceptance of adult judgment and pretending rejection of his own experience, all the while expending enormous energy holding on for dear life to his foothold in Self” (183).

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4 thoughts on “Feeling mean

    • Thanks, Anita! The book would definitely need work — no one actually consciously decides to hurt someone else in order to feel better! Things I try to develop usually lose a lot in the process, though.

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