THE BLOG
11/21/2014 02:07 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2015

If Life Is a Game, What Are the Rules?

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A new report from the National Center on Family Homelessness indicates that 1 in 30 American children were homeless last year. That's a staggering figure that all Americans ought to be thrown by because it speaks to the dysfunction of our economic recovery as well as the lapses in the American Dream. It also speaks to a fact of urban life in America: that Americans living in poverty don't know the "rules of the game."

I discovered this several years ago through my work in delivering Project Love character-education and social-emotional learning programs in the Cleveland Public Schools (now the Cleveland Metropolitan School District). Following a Power of Kindness workshop, a Cleveland student asked to speak to me, profoundly pointing out that, "If life is a game, then I don't know the rules."

After another workshop, Keith, a white former gang member, volunteered to lead students in future sessions. I asked him why, given his background, he wanted to take the time to train other teens through the power of kindness. He responded, "Until now, I didn't know there was another way."

In Believe to Achieve, Project Love's intensive weekly programming for the most at-risk students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, facilitators start out with ninth-graders by discussing their life purpose. Figure that teens aren't interested? Guess again.

The students who make up the poverty and homeless statistics that some suburbanites look at dispassionately, shaking their heads while proclaiming, "Not in America!" -- these kids want to succeed. But they first need to believe in themselves, and in their life purpose, hopes and dreams. Then they need to understand how to choose a mentor, ask for help, and build relationships. Then they need to graduate high school, learn workplace behaviors, get a job, go to college, or do both. Rules of the Game.

By following this formula, and connecting at-risk students with love -- a loving person who encourages them -- 85 percent of Believe to Achieve students, originally pegged as potential ninth grade dropouts, graduated from high school. Many became their school's top academic achievers.

But even after that, once they know the rules, they need to make a pact with their friends and mentors that they will succeed at the "game of life." They need social and emotional supports in order to "win" the game.

In the 2002 best-selling book The Pact, three friends who went through the Newark, New Jersey schools made a success pact, seeing each other through the trials, tribulations and dysfunctions of urban life and academic striving. They describe the continuing lure of the streets toward crime, drugs and decay and how their pact boosted each of them to success as doctors and a dentist. They found mentors, supported each other and learned "the rules of the game."

The statistics are indeed shameful -- homelessness, violence, poverty, hunger, dropping out -- and they accurately represent the cycle of poverty in Cleveland and elsewhere in urban and rural America. But the real shame is not the fault of these kids -- it's the fault of our education system for not teaching students the rules.

This will get worse. With the advent of Common Core standards and other stringent measures, this kind of social-emotional education will become more problematic for principals (whose schools are under a microscope) who opt for hard academics over soft skills. They're wrong. In order to win at the game of life, we need both. Just ask CEOs which skills lead to greater success and they will tell you that social-emotional competencies and character will result in greater success in the workplace and life.

The "rules of the game" are pretty simple but, in our current negative media world, without intervention, they're easily missed. However, if you get kids together to define them, their values shine through. Two weeks ago, Project Love assembled 2,000 teens at its annual Kickoff for Kindness rally at Cleveland State University to define these rules. As they tweeted ideas in response to compelling speakers, #rulesofthegame became the fourth most trending tweet of the day. Here are some of them:

Every teen can change the world. No matter what, keep your head up and stay strong. Don't be afraid to stand up! Everyone has a purpose. Do not end your life. Treat everyone equally. Stop the Hate! Give back and make a difference. Madison Wagner 8th grader challenges teens: have COURAGE! Do the right thing. Learn to Love and Love to Learn. Confront the haters. Be an example for others to follow. Be a role model. Treat people how you want to be treated. Character is who you are! Don't judge a book by its cover. Be respectful, be responsible, and be productive. Help the other people, even if you don't know them. Be authentic. Try not to give up on people or your friends. Speak up for those with no voice. One rule? Always be positive, it could rub off on someone. Don't take someone's kindness for weakness. Be a team player. Don't quit; you have one more move. Make your dream become reality. Stop sippin' on that HATErade. Be great. Don't let your pride stop you from speaking out. Change the cycle of your generation. Don't make excuses. It doesn't matter how you start -- it's where you finish. Love yourself and love others. Talk it out before throwing hands. Never allow yourself to be in a messed up situation. Stay true to yourself. Always spread your kindness to others. If u can't say anything nice don't say anything at all. Be nice to everyone, just by smiling at someone can make someone's day. Don't let anyone tell you who you are. Be courageous, be brave and be different. Make it your goal to make someone smile each and every day. Life doesn't give u a roadmap to happiness; in order to be truly happy u have to value yourself and the other people around u. Surround yourself with positive influences. Fill your heart with what's important and be done with the rest. Be a lover, not a fighter. Kindness is the key to success.

One of my closest friends, whose parents hid my parents during the Holocaust, once said to me: "There are many angels and many devils, but you can choose whether you see the angels or see the devils." I see many angels in these teens, and I have great hope that the "rules of the game" will empower kids to believe in themselves, repair our world, and fix the cycles of poverty, violence and negativity that plague America. We just need to give them the tools and our encouragement, and let them lead.

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Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us

Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org