We’ve all heard that old saying, “Kids can be cruel.” And it’s absolutely true.
As a teacher, I’ve seen it all from children; you name it, I’ve probably seen some version of it. There’s not much that kids do that can surprise me. I’ve had to hand out my share of discipline in order to keep the classroom functioning. Now before I go on, let me say discipline is not the same as punishment. Punishment is a grown-up’s way of getting back at a kid. It is often harsh and severe. Discipline, however, is redemptive. It’s meant to help a child understand that there are consequences for our choices. Discipline builds respect, over time. Punishment breeds fear, resentment and rebellion (I think it was Paul who admonished early Christians, “Provoke not your children to wrath.”) Punishment leads to abuse. Discipline leads to understanding, eventually, hopefully…and sometimes, it takes some ingenuity and often words are the strongest tool at our disposal.
This past week I may have administered the best discipline in my entire teaching career. I was at my wits end on how to handle the bickering of some students. We’ve had trouble with some children saying mean and hurtful things to others. I had already talked and taken away privileges, but none of that worked. So, when one little girl told a little boy that he was weird and that everybody hated him (words that crushed his spirit), I got that teacher look on my face, then I closed my classroom door. I shooshed them and stood there with my head slightly bowed and my hands behind my back. I was secretly praying to get through to the kids about how cruel words, criticism and unkindness take a long time to get over, a lifetime. Then I saw a hammer, board and nail in my mind’s eye. I didn’t have those objects for my demo, but I did look up and see a screw in the wall.
I showed them the screw in the wall and asked them what would happen if I took out that screw. Everyone said, “It will leave a hole.”
“That’s right,” I replied. “In the same way, every time we call another person weird or stupid or ugly…every time we say ‘you can’t do anything right,’ or ‘everybody hates you,’ we are making a hole in that person’s heart. Maybe I could fill this hole in with putty but underneath the putty, the scar is still there. When somebody says something mean to you it feels like they put a hole in your life, in your heart, and it never goes away. And pretty soon people are going around putting holes in people because that’s all they know how to do.”
Then I asked them, “Who in here has ever had someone put a whole in you?” Every hand in the room went up. Every one. And the oldest one is only eight years old. Wow! Our words have such power. I told them that if they put holes in people with their words then whenever the person they hurt grew up, they would remember them as the person who hurt them. I went on. I told them the poignant story of how someone had said mean things to me when I was their age and how I never forgot those mean things and how every time I thought of some kids I had known then, I always remember that they made holes in my heart with their words.
They sat, 24 first graders, in stone silence. It was remarkable. Some of them had downcast eyes, others near tears. I think they really understood. We ended up having what may have been the best week out of this year. On the way to the playground yesterday, I overheard one little girl say to another one that a thought had crossed her mind but she didn’t say it, because she didn’t want to make holes in people. It was the same little girl who had spoken so unkindly before. I knew she meant it. And I knew that some of those kids would never forget that unkind words are like screws that bore into our lives, leaving scars, and just maybe a few less kids will be cruel.