It’s difficult to hear the phrase “Say something nice” without finishing the sentence, “or don’t say anything at all.” I caught myself muttering these words recently as I watched a scene unfold from the cover of my porch. Two kids, around 10 or 11 years old, were walking past on the sidewalk while my neighbor and one of his closest friends, ages 8 and 9, looked for bugs at the base of their front yard tree. One of the passersby called out, “Hey! Who’s that? Is that your giiiiirrrlllfriend?” using his best mocking tone. “No! She’s my friend!” replied our neighbor anxiously. “Well, I don’t like you!” the boy retorted sharply and walked on with his friend. It was a walk-by mouthing and it took all of my self-regulation skills to not shout the refrain, “If you can’t say something nice…” Although it is a cliché, it’s a mantra to live by. More than that, the simple statement implies the use of social and emotional skills, the likes of which kids are still developing. In our role as caregivers and models, we can cultivate those skills so that kids can confidently follow through on that wise old saying.
It all begins with our ability to deeply listen to our children. Not just to become informed about the logistics of their day, but to understand how they are feeling. It requires some concentrated effort on our part to turn off our phones and other distractions and examine what may lie just under the surface of what our kids are telling us. But it’s worth the effort. Children who feel that the adults in their lives are actively working to empathize with their emotions end up building trusting relationships, not only with their parents, but also with friends, teachers and others they encounter. Research confirms that those trusting relationships directly impact their ability to learn and develop in and out of school.
And what is the alternative? Undoubtedly, you have witnessed children in your school or community who are emotionally starving. Interacting with them in any way feels like you may get sucked into a giant vacuum of need, devouring every bit of attention you possess. These children attempt to generate that connection through their whines, cries and by acting out. But ultimately, they are disappointed because it’s like eating sugar. Negative attention for negative behavior becomes empty calories, not true nourishment for their small beings. So is it better to avoid, walk by and not engage? The quick answer is not if you care about your children’s safety. Those same emotionally starved children can quickly attempt to meet their needs by bullying your child. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by too many emotionally starving children, there are numerous small steps we can take to make a difference in our own children’s lives and with the children they come into contact with each day. Here are some ways each of us can take action.
With our own kids:
Remember our kids are not us. “Why isn’t he answering the cashier?” I think, aggravated as my child shrinks from the cashier’s kind advances. Though I may want my child to be more extraverted, he is naturally an introvert. I have to remind myself, he has his own unique temperament that is unlike mine. Thinking about a child’s attributes and tendencies can put into perspective their reactions and help us, as parents, understand and become more responsive to their rhythms, need for quiet or ability to plug into social situations.
Make a household policy - all feelings are okay, some choices are not. Even when feelings are big and disturbing such as hurt or frustration or anger, shutting them down doesn’t make them go away. In fact, though a child may hide them in the moment, those unacknowledged feelings fester and bloom inside the child and can come out in the most unexpected times or in the most inappropriate ways. Feelings are always okay. You may say, “I understand you are mad and that’s fine. It’s how you acted that is not okay.” Also help children learn that only they are responsible for their feelings. No other person caused them to feel shame or guilt. Kids can learn to take ownership of their emotions and when they acknowledge those feelings, they will be better able to move on from them.
Model social protocols placing kindness first. At times, it seems children enter school age and are expected to automatically know how to act in any number of social situations. They should understand when to say thank you, when to hold the door and when to go second in line. Sometimes I find my own self awkwardly making my way through social interactions when I don’t exactly know what expectations others have of me, so how can a child possibly know how to navigate all of these expectations too? Some adults and children get defensive simply because they’re embarrassed. Be the one who leads with kindness. For example, when I forget a person’s name I have encountered previously, I might say, “I am sorry, can you please remind me of your name?” Model not knowing in a kind way and your child will follow suit.
Offer genuine, specific compliments. One who notices the good in others is not only confident in herself, she is also focused on finding positive attributes in people around her. Children will begin to notice and comment on the positive in others when they see it modeled by the adults in their lives. Find chances to point out when one sibling is showing kindness to another or a stranger is demonstrating compassion and it will prompt more of the same from your children.
Exercise self-control. When a nasty email was sent to all of my friends about me from a stranger, I wanted to respond with a similar retort, but I didn’t. Why perpetuate negative feelings? It takes great self-regulation skills at times to not respond to meanness with meanness. But it’s critical. We see models of a lack of impulse control on the news and on television often. The best way to counter those negative influences is to become models of self-control ourselves. Remind yourself that a hurtful comment not only escalates a conflict, it can also stay with the recipient for a long time, sometimes even for a lifetime. If you want to improve how people behave in this world, start by practicing your own impulse control.
With other kids:
Equate poor choices with compassion. When you witness a child acting out, it can activate your compassion response. That negative behavior is like a sign posted above the child’s head: “I need help. I’m emotionally starving.” Get curious. Find out what is going on with the child. Recently when my son was complaining about some rude behavior on the playground, I simply asked him, “Do you know of anything that is going on in his home life?” He told me, “Yes, his parents are getting a divorce.” And there you go. We don’t need to accept bad behavior. In fact, kids need to be empowered with language to tell the offender, “Stop! You know you are wrong.” But it’s equally critical to arm our children with compassion and curiosity to work to understand the thoughts and feelings of the other child.
We have the chance to raise caring, kind people, but we must take responsibility for modeling it ourselves first. The words we use in our daily life matter. They can be emotional nourishment for those around us. On “Say Something Nice Day,” share examples with your children of strangers or friends who have demonstrated kindness. See if you can look for ways yourself to spread your own words of care. And in situations where you just can’t say something nice? By now I think you know how the saying goes.
Say Something Nice Day is on June 1st this year thanks to the caring people of Charleston, South Carolina who decided to honor kindness among adults and children, remember people who contribute to our daily lives, like bus drivers, teachers and healthcare workers, and also prevent acts of bullying.