Teaching Children to Be Kind

I was recently asked to respond to the question “What one feature should be changed in Western culture in order to produce a higher percentage of emotionally healthy children and adults?” It is a stimulating question which would probably draw a unique answer from every professional who attempted a reply. But from my perspective, the most valuable revision would be for adults to begin actively teaching children to love and respect one another (and, of course, for these adults to demonstrate that love in their own lives).

Far from manifesting kindness and sensitivity, however, children are often permitted to be terribly brutal and destructive, especially to the handicapped child, the ugly child, the slow learning child, the uncoordinated child, the foreign child, the minority child, the small or the large child, and the child who is perceived to be different from his peers in even the most insignificant feature. And predictably, the damage inflicted on young victims often reverberates for a lifetime.

In counseling with neurotic patients, it is apparent that emotional problems usually originate in one of two places (or both): either from an unloving or unnourishing relationship with parents, or from an inability to gain acceptance and respect from peers. In other words, most emotional disorders (excepting organic illness) can be traced to destructive relationships with people during the first 20 years of life.

If this assumption is accurate, then adults should devote their creative energies to the teaching of love and dignity. And if necessary, we should insist that children approach one another with kindness. Can boys or girls be taught to respect their peers? They certainly can! Young people are naturally more sensitive and empathetic than adults. Their viciousness is a learned response, resulting from the highly competitive and hostile world which their leaders have allowed to develop. In short, children are destructive to the weak and lowly because we adults haven’t bothered to teach them to “feel” for one another.

Perhaps an example will help explain my concern. A woman told me recently about her experience as a room mother for her daughter’s fourth-grade class. She visited the classroom on Valentine’s Day to assist the teacher with the traditional party. (Valentine’s Day can be the most painful day of the year for an unpopular child. Every student counts the number of valentines he is given as a direct measure of his social worth.) This mother said the teacher announced that the class was going to play a game, which required the formation of boy-girl teams. That was her first mistake, since fourth-graders have not yet experienced the happy hormones which draw the sexes together. The moment the teacher instructed the students to select a partner, all the boys immediately laughed and pointed at the homeliest and least-respected girl in the room. She was overweight, had protruding teeth, and was too withdrawn even to look anyone in the eye.

“Don’t put us with Hazel,” they all said in mock terror. “Anybody but Hazel.” The mother waited for the teacher (a strong disciplinarian) to rush to the aid of the beleaguered little girl. But to her disappointment, nothing was said to the insulting boys. Instead, the teacher left Hazel to cope with that painful situation in solitude.

Ridicule by one’s own sex is distressing, but rejection by the opposite sex is like taking a hatchet to the self-concept. What could this devastated child say in reply? How does an overweight fourth-grade girl defend herself against nine aggressive boys? What response could she make but to blush in mortification and slide foolishly into her chair? This child, whom God loves more than the possessions of the entire world, will never forget that moment (or the teacher who abandoned her in this time of need).

If I had been the teacher of Hazel’s class on that fateful Valentine’s Day, those mocking, joking boys would have had a fight on their hands. Of course, it would have been better to prevent the embarrassment altogether by discussing the feelings of others from the first day of school. But if the conflict occurred as described, with Hazel’s ego suddenly shredded for everyone to see, I would have thrown the full weight of my authority and respect on her side of the battle.

My spontaneous response would have carried this general theme: “Wait just a minute! By what right do any of you boys say such mean, unkind things to Hazel? I want to know which of you is so perfect that the rest of us couldn’t make fun of you in some way? I know you all very well. I know about your homes and your school records and some of your personal secrets. Would you like me to share them with the class, so we can all laugh at you the way you just did at Hazel? I could do it! I could make you want to crawl into a hole and disappear. But listen to me! You need not fear. I will never embarrass you in that way. Why not? Because it hurts to be laughed at by your friends. It hurts even more than a stubbed toe or a cut finger or a bee sting.

“I want to ask those of you who were having such a good time a few minutes ago: Have you ever had a group of children make fun of you in the same way? If you haven’t, then brace yourself. Someday it will happen to you, too. Eventually, you will say something foolish . . . and they’ll point at you and laugh in your face. And when it happens, I want you to remember what happened today.”

(Then addressing the entire class) “Let’s make sure we learn something important from what took place here this afternoon. First, we will not be mean to each other in this class. We will laugh together when things are funny, but we will not do it by making one person feel bad. Second, I will never intentionally embarrass anyone in this class. You can count on that. Each of you is a child of God. He molded you with His loving hands, and He has said that we all have equal worth as human beings. This means that Suzie is neither better nor worse than Charles or Mary or Brent. Sometimes I think maybe you believe a few of you are more important than others. It isn’t true. Every one of you is priceless to God, and each of you will live forever in eternity. That’s how valuable you are. God loves every boy and girl in this room, and because of that, I love every one of you. He wants us to be kind to other people, and we’re going to be practicing that kindness through the rest of this year.”

When a strong, loving teacher comes to the aid of the least respected child in his class, as I’ve described, something dramatic occurs in the emotional climate of the room. Every child seems to utter an audible sigh of relief. The same thought is bouncing around in many little heads: If Hazel is safe from ridicule–even overweight Hazel–then I must be safe, too. You see, by defending the least popular child in the room, a teacher is demonstrating (1) that he has no “pets,” (2) that he respects everyone, and (3) that he will fight for anyone who is being treated unjustly. Those are three virtues which children value highly, and which contribute to mental health.

And may I suggest to parents, defend the underdog in your neighborhood. Let it be known that you have the confidence to speak for the outcast. Explain this philosophy to your neighbors, and try to create an emotional harbor for the little children whose ship has been threatened by a storm of rejection. Don’t be afraid to exercise leadership on behalf of a youngster who is being mauled. There is no more worthy investment of your time and energy.

This message is especially important for the children of Christians, who need to learn empathy and kindness during the early years. After all, Jesus gave the highest priority to the expression of love for God and for our neighbor, yet we often miss the emphasis in Christian education. For example, many Sunday schools diligently teach about Moses and Daniel and Joseph, yet permit a chaotic class situation in which cavorting students busily mutilate one another’s egos. In fact, when a Sunday school lacks strong leadership as I’ve described, it can become the most “dangerous” place in a child’s week. That’s why I like to see church workers spring to the defense of a harassed underdog and in so doing, speak volumes about human worth and the love of Jesus.

But to be honest, I wonder why this suggestion is necessary. I find it difficult to comprehend why adults need to be encouraged to shield a vulnerable child whose defenses have crumbled. What strange inhibition caused a loving teacher to stand immobile, while self-esteem was being assassinated in an overweight fourth-grade girl? Why will carpool drivers patently ignore brutal attacks that are hurled collectively at the least-popular rider? Why do mothers permit siblings to engage in emotional sabotage with little more than a whimpered request for peace and quiet? Somehow, we adults feel we don’t have a right to intervene in the antagonistic world of children. Well, it is my opinion that we do have the right; indeed, we have an obligation to say, “Let it be understood that we will not treat one another with disrespect in this house! Period! And the deliberate violator of that rule will face certain unpleasant consequences!” That is one requirement which children will welcome, even while they are attempting to disobey it.

My views on this subject have been influenced significantly by watching the children of other cultures. Not every society is as competitive and threatening to young egos as ours. This fact was emphasized by a pediatrician friend who recently visited the People’s Republic of China. To his surprise, Chinese children reacted very differently in a group situation than their Western counterparts. They revealed almost none of the shyness, self-consciousness, and reticence which is so characteristic of our own students when facing their peers. Despite the presence of visitors in their classrooms, these children stood and recited their lessons without apparent anxiety. They participated in group demonstrations and dramas with unconcealed enthusiasm.

It appears that Chinese children are more confident because they do, in fact, live in a less threatening environment. They are taught, as a product of the Communist system, to view their peers as “comrades” and “fellow workers.” Furthermore, competition among students is minimized and cooperation is stressed. The net effect is a less aggressive climate in which to grow. If my earlier supposition is accurate (that early peer rejection is damaging to emotional health), then China’s secure social climate should be correlated with a lower incidence of mental disorders in later adulthood. And predictably, that was the finding of Dr. Paul Lowinger, a psychiatrist who journeyed to China in 1975 to inspect that country’s mental hospitals and attitudes toward emotional health. Quoted below are excerpts from his report published in Medical Dimensions, December 1976.

All across China, we dauntlessly questioned citizens about anxieties, marital problems, and family discord. We probed absenteeism from work, alienation, antisocial behavior, and any other subjects we could think of that might cast some light on the general state of mental health in the People’s Republic.

As we spoke with more and more people, it became evident that the Chinese were relatively free from psychoneurotic and personality disorders. In other words, there is very little depression, anxiety, fear, or alienation in China, especially when compared with Western society or with other emerging nations.

During the interviewing process, I was most interested in information concerning absenteeism from work, since I felt this indicated the kind of alienation that is often seen in personality disorders. In talking with people about this, we learned that it is virtually unknown for Chinese workers to be absent from their jobs unless they are physically ill and in treatment at a clinic or hospital. Of course, they told us, they do have vacations and take pregnancy leaves, but they go to work consistently and like their work. When I pressed him, however, one of our guides was finally able to recall someone he knew who had been discontented with his job and changed from hotel employment to factory work.

When we spoke to school administrators and teachers, we wanted to find out about the behavioral problems among young children and adolescents. The consensus was that behavior problems are uncommon, although some children do learn more slowly than others. The teachers said it was rare for a child to be so disruptive that he had to leave the classroom. One teacher did recall a student who had behavior difficulty because of problems in the home.

Other problems they claimed to have eradicated were cases arising from malnutrition, unemployment and . . . thanks in part to an organized movement against it . . . opium addiction. We have no cases of that now, they said. Also, no alcoholism because such great changes have taken place in the spirit, habits, customs, and the world outlook of the people. These physicians also noted that problems with the elderly were minimal, and they saw few cases of senile psychosis. “In our society,” they said, “old people can live useful lives.”

Before I am accused of being a Communist sympathizer, let me hasten to acknowledge the liabilities of that totalitarian system. The Chinese people are denied fundamental freedoms which we in the West take for granted. And I certainly must oppose a government which forbids its citizens to travel freely, join a labor union, select its own leaders, operate a free press, serve the God of their choice, and so forth. Furthermore, it is likely that the glowing report Dr. Lowinger obtained from Chinese doctors was significantly influenced by their patriotism and revolutionary zeal. On the other hand, we can learn from China’s success and I definitely feel that we would do well to teach our children the virtues of cooperation and respect for the human family. That is, after all, the heart and soul of the Christian message. If I may make another suggestion regarding self-esteem in children, it would involve the need for parents to “defuse” the self-worth crisis before it arrives in adolescence, making it appear universal and temporary. I have long recommended a pre-adolescent instructional session that would permit the parent to explain some of the problems and concerns that are likely to develop during the following few years. I now believe that instructional effort should begin at least six years earlier.

In a sense, all of childhood is a preparation for adolescence and beyond. Mothers and fathers are granted a single decade to lay a foundation of values and attitudes that will help their children cope with the future pressures and problems of adulthood. As such, we would all do well to acquaint our young children with the meaning of self-worth and its preservation, since every human being has to deal with that issue at some point in the life cycle.

This teaching process should begin during the kindergarten years, if not before. For example, when your child meets someone who is too shy to speak or even look at him, you might say, “Why do you suppose Billie is too embarrassed to tell you what he is feeling? Do you think he doesn’t have much self-confidence?” (Use the word confidence frequently, referring to a kind of courage and belief in one’s self.) When your child participates in a school or church program, compliment him for having the confidence to stand in front of a group without hanging his head or thrusting his tongue into his cheek.

Then as the elementary years unfold, begin focusing on the negative side of that important ingredient. Talk openly about feelings of inferiority and what they mean. For example, “Did you notice how David acted so silly in class this morning? He was trying hard to make everyone pay attention to him, wasn’t he? Do you have any idea why he needs to be noticed every minute of the day? Maybe it’s because David doesn’t like himself very much. I think he is trying to force people to like him because he thinks he is disrespected. Why don’t you try to make friends with David and help him feel better about himself? Would you like to invite him to spend the night?”

Not only will you help your child “tune in” to the feelings of others through this instruction, but you will also be teaching him to understand his own feelings of inadequacy. Each year that passes should bring more explicit understanding about the crisis in worth which comes to everyone. It would be wise to give him an illustration of people who have overcome great feelings of inferiority (such as Eleanor Roosevelt), and ultimately, the best examples will come from the struggles of your own adolescent experiences. The goal is to send your pubescent son or daughter into the teen years armed with four specific concepts: (1) All adolescents go through a time when they don’t like themselves very much; (2) Most feel ugly and dumb and unliked by their peer group; (3) The worst of this self-doubt will not last very long, although most human beings have to deal with those feelings off and on throughout life; (4) Each of us possesses incredible value because we are children of the Creator, who has a specific plan for our lives.

I suppose this strategy appeals to me, not only for its possible contribution to a healthy adolescence but because it takes us in the direction of human understanding. And how badly that comprehension is needed! I read recently that 80 percent of the people who get fired from their jobs have not failed to perform as required. In other words, they do not lack technical skill or abilities. Their dismissal occurs because they can’t get along with people. They misunderstand the motives of others and respond with belligerence or insubordination. We can minimize that possibility by training our children to “see” others in a truer light, while preserving their own dignity and sense of worth.

A Final Comment

I hope I will not give the reader whiplash by changing direction too quickly, but we must not conclude this discussion without considering the biblical concept of “pride,” and how it relates to self-esteem. It is my opinion that great confusion has prevailed on this matter among followers of Christ. Some people actually believe that Christians should maintain an attitude of inferiority in order to avoid the pitfalls of self-sufficiency and haughtiness. I don’t believe it.

After speaking to a sizable audience in Boston a few years ago, I was approached by an elderly lady who questioned my views. I had discussed the importance of self-confidence in children and my comments had contradicted her theology.

She said, “God wants me to think of myself as being no better than a worm” (referring, I suppose, to David’s analogy in Psalm 22:6).

“I would like to respect myself,” she continued, “but God could not approve of that kind of pride, could He?”

I was touched as this sincere little lady spoke. She told me she had been a missionary for 40 years, even refusing to marry in order to serve God more completely. While on a foreign field, she had become ill with an exotic disease which now reduced her frail body to 95 pounds. As she spoke, I could sense the great love of the Heavenly Father for this faithful servant. She had literally given her life in His work, yet she did not feel entitled even to reflect on a job well done during her closing years on earth.

Unfortunately, this fragile missionary (and thousands of other Christians) had been taught that she was worthless. But that teaching did not come from the Scriptures. Jesus did not leave His throne in heaven to die for the “worms” of the world. His sacrifice was intended for that little woman, and for me and all of His followers, whom He is not embarrassed to call brothers. What a concept! If Jesus is now my brother, then that puts me in the family of God and guarantees that I will outlive the universe itself. And that, friends, is what I call genuine self-esteem!

It’s true that the Bible clearly condemns the concept of human pride. In fact, God apparently holds a special hatred for this particular sin. I have counted 112 references in the Scriptures which specifically warned against an attitude of pride. Proverbs 6:16-19 makes it unmistakably clear:

These six things cloth the Lord hate yea, seven are an abomination unto him: a proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren. (KJV)

Isn’t it interesting that a proud look (or haughtiness, as paraphrased in the Living Bible) is listed first among God’s seven most despised sins, apparently outranking adultery, profanity and other acts of disobedience? Anything given that prominence in the Word had better be avoided scrupulously by those wishing to please the Lord. But first, we must interpret the meaning of the word pride.

Language is dynamic and the meaning of words changes with the passage of time. And in this instance, the word pride has many connotations today which are different from the biblical usage of the word. For example, a parent feels “pride” when his son or daughter succeeds in school or wins a race. But I can’t believe the Lord would be displeased by a father glowing with affection when he thinks of the boy or girl entrusted to his care.
We speak also of the “Pride of the Yankees,” or a person taking pride in his work, or the pride of a southern cook. These are very positive emotions that mean the individual is dedicated to his craft, thathe has self-confidence, and that he will deliver what he promises. Certainly, those attitudes could notrepresent the pinnacle of the seven deadliest sins.
I’m equally convinced that the Bible does not condemn an attitude of quiet self-respect and dignity. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves, implying not only that we are permitted a reasonable expression of self-love, but that love for others is impossible–until we experience a measure of self-respect.

Then what is the biblical meaning of pride? I believe sinful pride occurs when our arrogant self-sufficiency leads us to violate the two most basic commandments of Jesus: first, to love God with all our heart, mind and strength; and second, to love our neighbor as ourselves. A proud person is too pompous and haughty to bow humbly before his Maker, confessing his sins and submitting himself to a life of service to God; or he is hateful to his fellow man, disregarding the feelings and needs of others. And as such, most of the ills of the world, including war and crime, can be laid at its door. That’s why the writer of Proverbs put “a proud look” above all other evils, for that, is where it belongs.

May I stress, further, that the quest for self-esteem can take us in the direction of unacceptable pride. In recent years, for example, we’ve seen the rise of the Me generation, nurtured carefully by humanistic psychologists who accept no scriptural dictates. One of the best-selling books of this era is entitled Looking Out for #1, which instructs its readers to grab the best for themselves. Widely quoted mottos reflect the same selfish orientation, including “If it feels good, do it! and “Do your own thing.” This philosophy of “me first” has the power to blow your world to pieces, whether applied to marriage, business or international politics.

For some reason, the Me generation has made its unofficial headquarters in the state of California, where I live. Perhaps that’s why I appreciate the California jokes which are currently in vogue. For instance, “How many Californians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Five–one to do the work and four to share the experience.” In reality, however, it’s no laughing matter. Followers of the self-seeking philosophy have the highest suicide rate, the highest divorce rate and the highest incidence of neuroticism in the country. Their experience recalls Jesus’ words, “For anyone who keeps his life for himself shall lose it; and anyone who loses his life for me shall find it again” (see Luke 9:24).

In summary, let me state what I hope has been obvious to this point. I am not suggesting that children be taught arrogance and self-sufficiency or that they are lured into selfishness. (That will occur without any encouragement from parents.) My purpose has been to help mothers and fathers preserve an inner physical and mental and spiritual health. And I hope this discussion of self-esteem has taken us a few steps further in that direction.

God loves you and your children. So do I.