One time I was riding around with my friend Joe Valerio, looking at warehouse property. It sounds boring, but it was fun. My kids were about four months old (twins). I was just back at work and we were looking for a place to put a combination office and warehouse for the company I worked for. Joe is an architect and crazy creative genius type. You could talk to him about anything.
Joe said "So your new persona, Earth Mother, how is it suiting you?" I was horrified. "Joe!" I said. "Earth Mother? No way. I'm still going for super-energized, cowboy boots punk rock HR manager." (I was in the car with Joe because in the company I worked for, Joe's client, there was no one to look after facilities except me, the HR chief.) "That's over," said Joe. "You radiate mom vibes now." "I don't like it," I said. "I love the babies, of course, but I don't want to be That Mom." "You won't be," said Joe.
Of all the unappealing mom personas I knew about and feared taking on, the fiercely-protective "It's all about my kid" one was the most repellent of all. I never wanted to be that mom, but reality barged in. There are bully kids and bully teachers out there, and if you haven't run into them, I am sincerely delighted for you.
I have seen how important supportive adults have been to my kids. I'll always be grateful to those people, from my own siblings to the kids' friends' parents, amazing teachers and administrators and coaches and tons of others. My youngest child's elementary school principal has been an unbelievable advocate and mentor for my kid. How do you convey the level of gratitude you feel toward people like that?
Still. The dark side of human behavior, fear and anger and blaming and the need to control and diminish people, that's out there, too, in lots of realms where kids spend time. The older I get, the more strongly I feel that we need to teach kids the simple difference between trust-based and fear-based words and actions. We don't do that now, not in the programs my kids have attended.
Here are ten lessons I'd teach if I wrote the curriculum, in every level from preschool through grad school.
Adults are in charge of the world because they are older. Most adults are wonderful people, but just being an adult doesn't make a person wise or right or trustworthy. You have to question the things that adults say and do just as much as you question the things kids say and do. Don't ever think "The person who's telling me this is an adult, therefore I have to listen."
There will be a little voice in your head telling you that you can't do certain things, because someone would laugh at you or because you might fail. That voice is trying to protect you, but the voice isn't you and doesn't always have your best interests at heart. You can say to that voice "I'm not listening to you" and quiet it down. You could even give your head-voice a name so that you remember it's not you talking. Then you could say "Oh, Miranda, the voice in my head, is telling me not to go talk to that new girl. Miranda is so shy it's ridiculous." Then you go say hi to the new kid. Easy!
Most rules are made up to make it easier for the adults in charge of lots of people to keep things organized. Some rules make a lot of sense, like the rules designed to keep people safe. Some rules are silly. When you hear about or read about a rule, ask yourself 'Who made this rule, and why did they do that?' You can learn a lot about adult behavior by asking this question all the time.
When someone is mean to you, that person feels bad about him or herself. You can sometimes say something to help that person feel better and stop being mean. If a girl in your school says "I hate your haircut. It's ugly" you can see that she feels bad about herself. There really isn't any other reason to say something like that. Her message only had one purpose: to make you feel bad, and make her feel better. You can say "I like YOUR haircut! It looks great on you." If the girl softens and starts acting normal again, you won't care too much that she started out the conversation in a mean way. That's just another way to say "I feel bad right now." We don't have to take it personally.
When we understand WHY people say the things they say, we gain a lot of personal power. When we first hear something mean, we can ask "Why did s/he say that?" When we can hear someone say something mean and think "Oh, she's having a tough time" we don't sucked into the say-something-mean vortex ourselves.
CRITICISM FROM ADULTS
There is never a good reason for an adult to tell a kid, "You are stupid" or "You are bad." Every time an adult says something mean like that to a kid, the adult is wrong. There isn't any school for teachers or advice-for-parents book that teaches people to say things like that. It is always a mistake. It happens when a parent or teacher or someone else gets mad and just wants a kid's behavior to stop and doesn't know a better way to make that happen. Sometimes the kid doesn't even do anything to provoke a mean statement like that. The adult might be feeling so bad about him or herself that s/he says something awful out of nowhere.
Everyone gets mad sometimes. Kids say mean things to grownups, too. If an adult says later "I'm sorry I said that mean thing to you," maybe the grownup was just in a really bad mood. If an adult says mean things to a kid all the time, the adult needs help from someone else who knows how to help grownups having trouble. It's okay to tell someone when a grownup says or does mean things to you. If it happens a lot, it's really important to tell someone.
THE RIGHT ANSWER
The grownup world is okay in some ways and not so healthy in other ways. You already know that there are lots of problems in the world that even smart grownups haven't solved yet. Sometimes grownups send kids the message "There is one right answer to every question." If you see a new way to answer a question, you can explore it. In the real world there is almost always more than one right answer to every problem. Half the fun grownups get to have is figuring out all the answers to a question!
Sometimes adults send the message to kids "The most important thing to do is to please people around you, especially adults." Lots of adults wish they hadn't learned that lesson quite so well when they were little. As they grow up, they realize that they spend way too much energy pleasing other people. If you want to please someone, do it! It is fun to make people happy. Just don't think that it's your obligation to always please the people around you, especially if your gut is saying "Yikes! Don't do it!"
Some adults are obsessed with the idea of success. They tell kids that the number one focus of school is to get good grades in school so that you can go to a good college and get a good job. The funny part is that these grownups have forgotten to ask the question "What is success, anyway?"
You get to make up your own definition for success. Maybe you'll get wonderful grades because that's fun and satisfying for you. If you don't get good grades in school, you're still a wonderful, amazing person. Grades are just another measuring stick. If you find something in school that you love to do and are good at, rejoice! Maybe it's chemistry. Maybe it's French horn. Maybe it's video production. If you get through school and you haven't found that thing, don't worry. All kinds of inspiration will hit you over the next few years. It's exciting. Don't worry about hitting anyone else's milestones for success!
Never trust or listen to any grownup who tells you that you're not smart, creative, talented or capable. Of course you are. You know it. Don't spend your time around people who drag you down, even if they have wonderful credentials to teach or coach. Credentials are just another measuring stick.
I talk to grownups all day long. Nearly every person I talk with says "I wish I had pursued [something or other] when I was a kid." This is the most common thing that grownups say when they talk about their own childhoods. If you want to try something, TRY IT. (Make sure it's okay with your parents, and safe and legal!) Don't NOT TRY something because some other kid already does it better, or because you might look stupid, or because you have a rep to maintain or because you might fail. Who cares? They put a lot of cool stuff in front of kids in school. You could try something new and love it. Do it!
TRUST YOUR GUT
Trust your gut and your instincts above everything else. If your mom and dad and other people who love you tell you that you're impulsive and need to slow down to think about things, then listen to those people ahead of this advice! If not, trust your gut. You don't need 'good reasons' for the things your heart tells you to do. Just listen.
There is a way to approach new people, situations and things with love and trust, and there is a way to approach them with fear. When you choose trust and say "Why not?" you'll grow a muscle (we could call it the Trust Yourself muscle). That is the most important thing for you to grow. It's more important than grades and medals and popularity in school, I swear!
Follow Liz Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asklizryan