What Do We Tell The Children?

“Say that silence is dangerous, and teach them how to speak up when something is wrong.”

It goes without saying that I’ve been reeling with grief and shock this week. Here are some concrete words I was able to pull strength from in my conversations with students this week, from The Huffington Post. The article bears reading in full:

What Do We Tell The Children?

“Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated at your school.”

“We need to teach students how to disagree—with love and respect. These skills will be priceless in the coming months and years as we work to build a democratic society that protects the rights of all people ― regardless of the cooperation or resistance those efforts face from the executive branch.” 

Now we regroup, and we tell the people we love that they are loved and they matter over and over and over again. My question to myself this week: How can I most effectively leverage my skills and the privileges I have left to stand up for and support the young people who are going to spend a key portion of their formative years under the reign of a bigot who promotes sexual assault?

If you are devoted to this same goal as a fellow educator and/or advocate and/or restless globetrotter, I’d love to hear your ideas below. More to come soon. 

TAKE OUR QUIZ: Should you work at a life-changing leadership camp for teens changing the world?

Are you an activist-educator and would like an amazing job this summer? OR do you know a teenager who wants to strengthen their activism skills to make the world a better place? I worked with Youth Empowered Action camp as a mentor to teen activists last summer and can’t recommend it highly enough. See below!

Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp

1557406_10152624735564698_107012194_o-300x199YEA CAMP IS HIRING FOR THE SUMMER!

Take our quiz to see if you should apply to work at our life-changing summer camp for social change!

1. Want to work with the best teenagers in the world and have a super inspiring experience with amazing staff in a beautiful location this summer? Do you want to be an important part of a program training and supporting the next generation of changemakers addressing the pressing issues of our time?

2. Are you a dedicated progressive activist working in positive, peaceful, strategic ways to make our world a better place? Do you have experience in lots of different types of activism and are you supportive of a variety of progressive issues, including animal rights, climate change, anti-racism, women’s rights/pro-choice, and gay rights? Can you model being respectful of people who disagree with you? (No angry activists, please.)

yeacampersclimate33. Do you have experience…

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Conflict resolution

Hello lovely readers. With the school year in full swing, I’ve been spending a lot of hours with five-to-seven year olds in child care and student teaching. And sometimes (often) kids get frustrated. A parent asked me to write out some of my strategies for conflict resolution when siblings fight, so here’s a few things I try to keep in mind when tensions escalate. I’d welcome feedback! Thanks 🙂
1) Stay calm. This may seem obvious and also easier said than done, but kids really tend to take their cues from the people around them. If I get really anxious about something, they’re likely to get more anxious too. So if the kids are upset about something that seems like it isn’t actually a big deal, I just honor and acknowledge their feelings and then try to model calm and reasoned problem-solving. Of course if there is a serious problem, I communicate that to them, but as calmly as possible, and tell them what needs to happen or again model effective problem-solving.
2) Acknowledge their feelings and de-escalate. We take deep breaths and I remind them that we need to use words to communicate in order to solve a problem. Sometimes I use some modified techniques from Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication. http://www.wikihow.com/Practice-Nonviolent-Communication Though I try not to become too scripted, as that can seem disingenuous and thus be counterproductive. I ask “what are you feeling right now?” and “What do you need?” and work with them to try and find a way that we can all get what we need without anyone getting hurt (physically or emotionally).
3) Share my own experiences. I think it’s important for kids to realize everyone (adults too) gets frustrated and angry, that it’s not bad to feel emotions, and that there are constructive ways of expressing those emotions without hurting anyone.  Last month, I had a conversation with some kids about punching vs. other ways of expressing anger without hurting anyone – e.g. I told them sometimes when I get upset, I throw a pillow or go in the backyard away from people to have a good scream. They laughed at the idea of my throwing pillows, which also helped de-escalate the tension.
4) Collaborate to find a solution. I give kids autonomy and try to always give them choices or ask them what they think we should do if it’s a situation with any flexibility, and I thank them for their helpful ideas. Then in the few circumstances in which there really can’t be any compromise, I feel comfortable putting my foot down, and they’re more likely to listen.  I also encourage them to ask each other for what they need instead of having me give orders (e.g. “Did you ask Maria if you could have a turn next?” instead of “Maria, let Joshua on the swing now.”)
5) Always give reasons when I ask or tell them to do something (and I try to make a clear distinction there!) or when I say no. Most of the things I’m not willing to compromise on have to do with staying safe/healthy. I am lucky that most of the kids I work with are very responsible about not crossing the street without an adult, not touching the hot stove, etc., so I don’t have to say a flat “no” very often.
6) Problem-solve instead of punish. Once a child I was watching punched another child in the middle of a mall. I first quickly made sure they were all right and then told the child firmly “It is never okay to punch” and “we have to discuss this now,” but also told them “I’m not angry. I’m not angry, but we have to talk because I can tell something is very wrong.” We re-located to the closest quiet space (happened to be a couch in a bookstore) and continued “I know you wouldn’t have wanted to hurt [name], so you wouldn’t have done that unless something was really upsetting you. Please tell us what happened.” I assume the best of intentions. First the child clammed up and refused to speak at all, but when he realized I wasn’t punishing him, he was able to tell us why he was upset with the other child, and we discussed ideas of how to solve the problem without hurting each other. He eventually apologized but not before he was ready (as an apology is pretty meaningless if it’s not genuine).
7) Specific positive reinforcement. I try to point out things I’m really happy about to encourage repeating, instead of saying “no” all the time. “Thank you for telling us before you stopped your bike in front of me.” “Thank you for biking carefully and stopping before each street.” “That was so kind of you to offer to help your brother.” “That was so kind of you to offer to share with your sister.” Etc., etc. I also avoid just saying, “you were really good today” or similar because that doesn’t really give them any new information, and also can inadvertently imply that sometimes a child is “bad.”
Hope this offers some food for thought! I am always questioning and refining conflict resolution with a goal of honoring kids’ experiences and empowering them to stand up for themselves with peers and thoughtfully, effectively resolve conflicts – suggestions always welcome. Thanks again!
Post-script: To end, have a smile – This is the first photo I saw when I searched for “kids fighting” online … This looks like goat kids playing to me, actually! They hit their strong foreheads and horns together for fun. =)
kids fighting

“Mountain Tambourine”

“Mountain Tambourine,” Peter van Toorn (Canada), This Same Sky p. 102 (see Resource List)

A crew took part of the big tree awaypoplar tree
on my street. A poplar, it was throwing
its ashes, its dirty pillow stuffing,
around too much. So they said. Anyway,
people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something,
a power or phone line. What’s still standing
they’ll come for tomorrow and chop away.
It doesn’t make much poplar talk now. The big
clatter’s gone out of it. On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.
It leans to one side at a warm angle,
like Annie, whose door it covered last fall.

Background on Philosophical Issues

Environmental Ethics

“Mountain Tambourine” makes us wonder what our roles are as people in relation to the earth and its inhabitants. The people in the poem cut a tree down, presumably because it has been inconveniencing humans. Is it okay to destroy non-human nature in order to make ourselves more comfortable? Our instincts might be to say no, but we must realize that our day-to-day lives depend on doing just this every day. Every time I write on a sheet of paper or print out an essay for school, I depend on the systematic destruction of forests. Every time I get in a car or even ride a bus or train, I support the creation of more exhaust fumes that pollute the air and make it difficult for all species of animal and plant life to live. Every time I open a plastic package, I know the material will ultimately end up leaching chemicals into the earth and/or being picked up and choked on by a bird or fish who mistakes it for food. My waste and its consequences will be around long after I am gone. Does this mean we should reject all forms of industrial living? Some people say yes, and choose to live entirely “off the grid” and/or as fruitarians – individuals who do not consume anything that caused another living entity, animal or plant, to die. Others believe that we can find a morally-acceptable balance between considering the interests of present-day humans, the interests of other species of animal and plant life, and the interests of future generations. Either way, it is difficult to imagine living in today’s society without in some way relying on paper made from trees that have been killed. How do we reconcile our wishes to treat the earth with “respect” and “kindness” and our urge to maintain the habits and conveniences we have grown up accustomed to?

Philosophy of Language

The tree almost becomes a character in this poem. The speaker refers to the tree’s “poplar talk,” and the tree has a “tired branch.” This personification compels us to consider what it really means to communicate. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) revolutionized how we think about language and communication. For Wittgenstein, effective communication depends on a “language game,” in which all the participants in a conversation agree on the same “rules.” Under this understanding, words mean something only within the context of a culture. The meanings of words, of course, depend on how individuals interpret them.

What is the relationship between language and communication? Wittgenstein hypothesized a “private language” (though he didn’t refer to it with this name). Wittgenstein believed that a private language – a language that only one person understands – would be meaningless. The reasoning behind this is that each word has meaning only in relation to other words. If someone makes up a word but has nothing to relate it to, then even the originator would not be able to explain her own language. This seems to imply that any language must be communicated between multiple people. If this is true, it could imply that the formation of language and even concepts depends on set, agreed-upon rules of behaviour.

However, others have put forth a wider definition of language, which can include a language spoken only to the self. If even trees can have language, would this mean they have thoughts and consciousnesses? Or would it mean that language doesn’t require consciousness? On the other end of the spectrum, is it possible for someone to have thoughts without having access to language, or do we need language in order to formulate thoughts?

languages

References:

Candlish, Stewart; Wrisley, George. “Private Language.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Richter, Duncan. “Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sample Questions for Discussion

“…people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something…”

  • What are some reasons that people cut down trees? Are these good reasons or bad reasons? Why?
  • What should we do if one living entity’s existence is hurting another living entity?
  • Should the people cut the poplar tree down? Why or why not?
    • Does it matter/would your answer change if the tree were endangering buildings, plants, or animals? Why or why not?
    • What if it were only inconveniencing humans but not in danger of actually hurting anyone?
    • If the tree were endangering animals, would it matter/would your answer change if it were endangering human or nonhuman animals? Why or why not?

“…On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.”

  • Do trees have a purpose? If so, what is it and why do you think so?
    • If so, do all trees have more or less the same purpose?
  • Do people have a purpose?
    • If so, do all people have the same purpose?
  • If there were no people on earth, would the purpose of the tree be the same?
  • Who gets to decide what something or someone’s purpose is?
  • What should happen when someone or something cannot fulfil its purpose any longer?
  • Is a purpose the same thing as a goal? Why or why not/if not, what is the difference?

“It doesn’t make much poplar talk now.”

  • What does it mean to “talk” or to “make talk?”
  • Do you think the “poplar talk” means the tree was making sounds, the tree was communicating, or something else?
  • Can the sound(s) trees make be classified?
  • Do trees talk/do trees communicate? How so/can you think of some examples?
  • Can we talk to trees? Why or why not?
  • Is “talking” always the same as “speaking?” Why or why not?
  • Does “talking” always involve sounds?
  • When people use their hands to communicate using one of the hundreds of codified signed languages around the world, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • When humans or other animals use gestures or facial expressions to communicate, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • If I say something that only I understand, is that a language? Why or why not? If I interpret the sounds of nature to mean something but no one else understands them the same way, is that language? Why or why not?
Koko understands spoken English and ASL, and she uses over 1000 signs to communicate with other gorillas and with humans.

*Note: Many of the questions above were inspired by a discussion with the Spring 2015 Smith College Poetry Concentration Senior Capstone course. I am indebted to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and all my amazing peers for opening up these ideas. Thank you!

Environmental Ethics Activities

Related Resources

  • The Giving Tree book module by Professor Tom Wartenberg
    • Includes summary of the beloved illustrated poem by Shel Silverstein, guidelines for philosophical discussion with philosophical background, and example discussion questions.