People like advice when it comes in list form, so I set out to compile a top-ten list of important rules for being with kids, but I couldn’t really make a list of ten or even seven or even two. It comes down to just one. Something we all already know, and yet is sometimes very hard to act on.
But first, a story. A really long time ago some very important and wise big-deal Rabbis, Shammi and Hillel were provoked to summarize the whole Torah while standing on one foot (yes, it’s a weird challenge and I don’t think a whole religion should be judged on its succinctness or the balancing skills of its leaders, but that’s not the point). Shammi takes offense but Hillel balances on one leg and says something like “Don’t do to other people what you don’t want them to do to you. The rest is commentary. Now go study.” This summary of the Five Books of Moses turns out to be an excellent summary of how to treat children, too. I think though, that we are much better at living this with other adults than with children.
I’m not suggesting that people are often cruel to their children or students, but we do seem better at trusting our intuition as to what another might not want, and not doing it to the other, when the other is an adult. Perhaps we are not entirely convinced that children are cognizant or morally sensitive enough to merit the golden rule. They are. Perhaps we do not think they are enough like us for it to apply. They are. Anyway, it is not so hard to modify the “Hillel test” for those with superficial differences from ourselves. Kids are different from us in a lot of ways. They can spin around for ages without getting dizzy and they like horribly sweet Popsicles. There is a lot they have not been informed of and do not understand. Most of what we mean by basic kindness, though, is apprehended even by very young kids.
The following are just two examples commonly seen when good parents and teachers, seem to neglect to apply this basic rule of kindness.
When you do something wrong accidentally or even knowingly, do you like to have it pointed out in front of others? Does it help you not make the mistake again? Public humiliation of children for ‘misbehavior’ and even accidents is still common in school and home settings. Kids might not have to wear dunce hats anymore, but they are made to sit in ‘thinking chairs’ and to leave the group or the room. I have heard more than one adult (and one of them has been myself, I’ll admit), say something like this to a child that has fallen: ”I told you to be careful!” Now imagine your spouse spills the wine at a dinner party. Maybe he wasn’t holding the glass steadily enough. Would it be kind to say or do anything other than help clean up?
Suppose you tell your spouse that you are mad about something. Would it be kind of her to respond, “No you’re not.”? It would be unkind. It would be infuriating, but we do it to kids all the time. “Oh, you do not hate your brother”, “You can’t be that sad from a broken cookie!” I have been particularly guilty of this as a parent myself. Not in direct words but it looks and eye-rolls or lack of comforting. I regret my past misbehavior and am working on being better. It’s hard. We may wish they felt different, or think that they ought to feel different, but nonetheless, children, just like adults, feel what they feel and it is unkind to suggest otherwise.
Applying basic kindness to children, like much of teaching and parenting, is seemingly simple, yet deeply challenging and complex. Too much to say while standing on one foot, and if there’s a child around, odds are she’s throwing you off balance, anyway!