Actually, It’s Not “OK”

At some point in our lives, we have surely all taken part in a dialogue similar to the following:

 

“Brandon, you need to apologize to Jerome for hitting him,” instructs a parent or teacher.

 

“I’m sorry I hit you, Jerome,” mumbles Brandon.

 

“It’s okay,” offers Jerome, with a noncommittal shrug.

 

End of story. (Until it happens again…)

 

When in the history of humanity did it become socially appropriate to say to our victimizer that what they just did to us was “okay”? I know what you’re thinking: “Kathleen, it’s just a manner of speech.” Perhaps to adult ears we recognize that it is just a way of saying “I forgive you”, but what do the children hear? This is an excellent example of why I believe we need to be more precise with our words. We need to say what we mean and mean what we say, compassionately of course. Here is an example of how I coach my children and students in forgiveness.

 

“Brandon, you need to apologize to Jerome for hitting him,” I instruct.

 

“I’m sorry I hit you, Jerome,” mumbles Brandon.

 

“It’s okay,” offers Jerome, with a noncommittal shrug.

 

This is where I am compelled to intervene and guide the children in changing their script.

“Are you sure, Jerome? Is it really okay that he hit you?” I ask.

 

“Well…no,” replies Jerome.

 

“So let’s not tell Brandon that it’s okay. You need to tell him that, in fact, it’s not okay that he hit you, but you forgive him.” (pause) “Go ahead, Jerome. You can do this,” I prompt.

 

“It’s not okay that you hit me, Brandon, but I forgive you,” repeats Jerome. It is his first time using this language, but a certain air of confidence and comfort with the words is discernible.

 

Addressing Brandon, I say, “It’s very kind of Jerome to forgive you, Brandon, don’t you think?”

 

“I guess,” Brandon replies. His vague answer is to be expected. It is an indication that he is unsure of where this is all headed. My goal is for both boys to walk away from this conflict with a sense of well-being. If there is to be any growth, the boys need to feel safe to express themselves. Therefore, I speak with a firm, confident, yet kind tone of voice, consciously creating a positive energy to ensure an amicable dialogue and a positive outcome.

 

“Well Brandon,” I continue, “I know that it is kind of him. It’s not easy to look at the person who has just caused us pain and simply forgive him. It takes a certain amount of courage, especially since part of forgiveness is the desire to trust that it won’t happen again. How can you prove to Jerome that you are truly sorry?”

 

Brandon shrugs his shoulders.

 

“I believe you owe him an act of kindness. Do both of you agree?” I ask the question, knowing full well that they understand there is not really any choice in the matter. However, the act of questioning the boys is a powerful tool, as it forces their brains to process the information in a more constructive manner. They are left in a position where they need to make a choice, and in so doing, commit themselves to something in a way that is much more empowering than simply being told what to do. The boys exchange a look of understanding, and in that moment, the balance of power shifts to one of equal footing. I am no longer facing a victim and victimizer. Standing before me now are two boys who have been given an opportunity to let go of their pain and to build something positive together.

 

“Do you have any ideas of what you could do for Jerome to prove to him that you are truly sorry?” I ask Brandon. I always give the child an opportunity to come up with suggestions first. Often he will be too shy to verbalize his thoughts, but that does not matter. What matters is that the child sees that I trust in his ability to do something good. It communicates that I have faith in his innate goodness.

 

“I don’t know…” responds Brandon. Considering the fact that this is unchartered territory, it is normal that the child might find it challenging to offer ideas. This is perfectly fine.

 

“I’m sure you could come up with plenty of ideas, Brandon,” I patiently coax. “I’ve seen you do really kind things for others before.” It does not matter if this last statement is true. Words are extremely powerful. As this belief is voiced, Brandon’s mind immediately and naturally goes searching for a time when he did something nice for someone else. He is again registering the fact that his goodness has been seen by others. We must never underestimate a child’s longing to feel loved. The children who display the most anger or frustration tend to be the ones who have yet to be convinced of the fact that they are worthy of their place in this world.

 

Turning to Jerome, I ask, “Can you think of something that you would like Brandon to do for you?”

 

“Maybe he could let me stand in front of him in line?” Jerome suggests, with a sparkle in his eye. (It really is the little things in life, isn’t it?)

 

“There’s one idea for you, Brandon,” I say encouragingly. “You could also bring him his lunchbox or hold the door open for him at recess.” Addressing Jerome, I continue, “So Brandon owes you an act of kindness by the end of the day. Be sure to tell me once he’s done it or if he forgets, okay?” This last instruction is very important as it builds accountability. Brandon knows that Jerome will be reporting back to me as to whether or not he follows through with his act of retribution.

 

“Okay,” Jerome agrees.

 

“Brandon, you can come and tell me too, if you like, okay?” I say with a smile. Like this, while Brandon understands he is being held accountable, he also sees that he is being trusted to follow through on his act of kindness.

 

“Okay,” agrees Brandon.

 

The technique of using acts of kindness to prove that a child is truly sorry for what he has done is an extremely powerful one. I have been amazed at how ‘the Brandons’ of the world will actually perform several acts of kindness towards ‘the Jeromes’ of the world and eagerly tell me about it. I have even witnessed ‘the Brandons’ performing acts of kindness towards other classmates as well. When questioned as to what motivated them, they will state it was simply because they saw an opportunity to do so, proving that kids will see what we point their attention towards when done so lovingly. The more we tell children that we see their goodness, the more that they are able to see it for themselves.This is what is known as the “mirror effect” and there is no more beautiful way to put it to use than by telling children just how lovely they are.

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