Start as You Mean to Go

Since before my children were born, I have always known what kind of relationship I wanted to have with them. I have always dreamed of a day when my children would be grown and we would speak to one another as equals, as friends. I have this image of us sitting at a cozy table in a trendy café, chatting easily with one another about anything and everything. What’s more is that I have been sharing this image with them for as long as I can remember.


“Perhaps we’re in the Old Port of Montreal…or maybe we’re on Dobson Street in Vancouver…” I’ll suggest. Now that they’re older, they like to make suggestions of their own and they’ll name cities and countries from around the globe. It has become our dream.


Why did I choose to tell them about this dream from the time they were little? I believe that in sharing my dream of our beautiful, loving, lifelong relationship, I am setting up the conditions under which it may flourish and become a reality. I tell them that as much as I love being their mother, it isn’t easy having to make difficult decisions. It is never my wish to disappoint them. But right now, it is my job to be their parent, not their friend. But one day…one magnificent, glorious day…though I will always be their mother and I will always want to look out for them…they will be adults and we can have a friendship wherein I respect their choices and offer advice only if it is requested.
I don’t pretend to know that this dream will come true. I am well placed to know that life can throw all kinds of twists and turns at us. What I know for certain though is that I stand a much better chance at achieving this dream if I consciously work at it in the present moment. Rare are the dreams that come true just by chance.

I’m stupid.

If you’ve ever heard a child call himself “stupid” or you’ve witnessed a child burst into tears because the work is too hard, then you have caught a glimpse of the illness that exists in our society and school system. How is it possible for a child of only eight or nine years of age to have such a negative view of himself? Why, instead of approaching a  new challenge with confidence would a child feel anxiety? What are we doing wrong?


Some children are naturally more confident or more anxious than others, that’s true. But I firmly believe that when parents and teachers empathize with the child, by trying to understand where the frustration or lack of confidence is coming from, we can build that child up and significantly reduce anxiety levels.

Teachers, the time has come for us to readjust our expectations, not only of ourselves, but of our students and their parents. We need to step back and reevaluate our beliefs and practices. No matter what we dream or imagine for a child, it is not for us to impose our beliefs on them. While parents and teachers ought to expose children to the endless possibilities this amazing world has to offer, children must feel free to dream their own dreams and explore their curiosities.

The standards I set in my classroom are high. Yet, no two students share the exact same set of expectations. Not exactly anyways. Every single one of them is expected to give her best. This best will vary from one day to the next. It will vary from one subject area to another. It will even vary throughout the day depending on fatigue, hunger, motivation, engagement, distraction…

Let go of control.  Give children the chance to lead the way in their understanding as much as possible. The act of accepting what is is liberating.

For example, if a student tells me, “I hate writing!”

My response is simply, “That’s okay, you’re allowed to not enjoy writing.”

While I do ask them to rid their vocabulary of the word hate in relation to writing (or anything else for that matter), I do not require them to see themselves as writers.

“You do not see yourself as a writer?”, I say, “That’s okay. Tell me, how do you see yourself? What do you love to do? Do you have dream for your future?”, I implore.

I have yet to meet a student who tells me of a dream for which I cannot find at least one example of how knowing how to write won’t help him to live his dream to the fullest. I find a way to give them a purpose for knowing how to communicate effectively in the written form. I do not insist that they become writers.

The school system is designed to make kids think they have to excel in math, and reading, and writing, and science…This structure does not take into account multiple intelligences. This system does not encourage children to celebrate their uniqueness. We talk about these things, but at the end of the day, we all have to write the same test if we plan to get ahead and be the top of our class…What does it matter to me if the renovators who just updated my kitchen enjoy reading science-fiction or writing poetry? I sure hope they know how to read a ruler and use a drill though!  When will we all realize that mastering the basics is essential and the rest can be guided through curiosity, passion, interest and ability? Shouldn’t each child be treated and taught as the unique human being that she is?

The most amazing things happen when we let go of telling children to “try harder” and instead tell them, “It’s okay if you don’t get it right now. It’s also okay if you don’t enjoy this. You don’t need to. Together we’ll try to find ways to help you succeed enough that we both know you will have the skills necessary to achieve your dreams. That’s the big picture. That’s what matters most.”
What I’ve discovered is that when we talk to kids about their dreams, they light up. When we take the pressure off of them to perform to our expectations, they start setting their own goals, in relationship to their own dreams. (This of course, secretly, is our expectation, but they don’t need to know that!) When children know that we only wish to see progress, not perfection, they proudly tell us about their achievements and often, if not always, excel beyond our greatest expectations.

Photo credit goes to Anthony J. D’Angelo at

Original photo credit: Katie Phillips

Positive Motivation (No, It’s Not Blackmail)

When it comes to discipline, there is a significant difference between punishment and natural consequences. Punishment is rife with emotion, threats, hurt feelings and power struggles. A natural consequence, on the other hand, can be as simple as it sounds. It’s just math: a + b = c. There is no need for emotional reactions and the power lies in the hands of the beholder.

(I have written this post from a parent’s perspective but I use the same techniques with my students.)

When my daughter sulked about doing her homework the other night and tested my patience, my intervention was clear and to the point, “If you have no time or energy for your homework then I guess you have no time or energy to play on your tablet. Let me go get it and put it away for awhile.” For my girls, their tablets are what I refer to as their “money”. I do not make the statement in a threatening manner, nor to I frame it as punishment.  I say what I have to say in a calm, clear way. It is nothing more than a logical consequence. I am not just playing with semantics; rather I am teaching my children an essential life lesson which is that we must give our best to our work in order to have free time to play. This is far from being an “all work, no play” philosophy. Instead, when my children whine about their work, I’ll ask them, “Do you enjoy our family vacations?” or “Are you happy we bought a swimming pool last year?” followed by, “How do you think we can afford these luxuries?…It’s because your father and I have learned to find the balance between work and play that we not only have the money to provide you with these luxuries, but that we have the time as well with which to enjoy them. That is the lesson you are being taught right now.” They get it. They just need to be reminded…sometimes more often than we’d like, but we mustn’t give up. They are kids after all.


Anita, a woman I see every now and then at the gym, approached me the other day. “Can you recommend other high schools to me? My daughter is fourteen and she has landed in the wrong crowd. She has just failed two of her classes and she doesn’t seem to care. All she cares about are her friends and talking about her hair, her clothes and boys. Plus she’s always on that darn phone of hers! Maybe if she changes schools, she’ll get serious.”


“I have yet to raise teenagers, so whatever advice I have to offer, please take it with a grain of salt,” I began. “First, let me ask you, do you truly believe her behaviour will change in a new school?” I asked.


“You know, my daughter said the same thing when I told her I would change her school. She says she’s a follower and so she’ll just end up with the same type of girls, or worse,” Anita confided.


“I find it interesting that she sees herself as a follower. I’m not accustomed to hearing kids label themselves as such. I wonder how authentic that statement really is or could she be using it as an excuse for her behavior?” I replied.


“I was thinking the same thing…You know, she doesn’t care anymore about trying to get an 80% on a test. As long as she passes with a 60%, she’s happy. How can she can be fine with that? I need her to care more…How can I make her care more? Two weeks ago when she failed those two classes, I took away her phone and she has yet to get it back. I don’t know what else to do.”


There was so much more I needed to know before I could be of any service to this loving mother. It was clear as day to me that she cares about her daughter. My gut was telling me though that her daughter was feeling alienated from her right now and the disconnect had created a downward spiral effect.


“Has she always done well in school? Is it unusual for her to be struggling?” I inquired.


“I have a tutor for her. I know if she just works hard enough, she can do it.”


“She’s currently enrolled in the international program though, right? That’s a program that has great benefits, but is it possible she is feeling overwhelmed by the increased workload?” I pressed.


“Her cousins are always on the honor roll. But her, she just doesn’t seem to care. She doesn’t even try.”


“This may not be what you want to hear, but I can’t help but feel that for most of the kids who are on the honor role, it comes relatively easily for them. What looks like a wonderful accomplishment is actually a reflection of their passion or their natural aptitude. By no means am I discrediting those students who put in hours of hard work to be on the honor roll, it’s just that in general, the school setting is designed for a specific type of child. Those are the children we tend to see on the honor roll. It’s not fair to expect every child to fit that mold. If every child could achieve it if they ‘just tried hard enough’ it wouldn’t even exist or the criteria would change. The design of the honor roll in my opinion, is flawed. It separates students based on ‘school smarts’ but neglects all the other areas that the so-called ‘regular’ students may thrive in. It sounds to me like your daughter is the type of child who has talents that do not fit the mold of the school system. Am I right? What is she passionate about? What does she imagine herself doing later in life?”


Anita’s face lit up as she began describing her daughter’s love for animals and talent for architectural design. Needless to say, neither of these domains are focused on in the first twelve years of school, which can easily lead a child to believe that school is pointless.


“Here’s the first step I would take if I were you, Anita,” I advised. “Set aside some time for a heart to heart with your daughter to ask her about her passions and her dreams. You need to find some common ground and rekindle a friendly connection. Have her tell you what she sees herself doing in the future, then research college and university programs to see what the prerequisites are for these programs. Give her some concrete information as to why passing her classes with decent grades, not just scraping by, will enable her to attain her dreams. Explain to her that she needs to have good grades to get accepted into the program of her choice. At this point, she just doesn’t know any better. She has no clear, concrete reason to care. By getting on board with her dreams, and seeing things through her eyes, you may be able to give her the motivation she needs to work harder.”


Anita was keen on giving this a try. I was curious to know how her daughter was handling not having her cell phone so I asked, “Have you noticed any improvements in her behavior since you took her cell phone away?”


“…Not really, no,” Anita admitted.


I had a theory as to why it might not be having the effect for which she had hoped. “Does she know what she needs to do in order to get it back? Have you negotiated some type of a contract with her?” This had not occurred to her so I elaborated, “It’s possible that your daughter sees no reason to apply herself harder in her studies because she has no hope for regaining a piece of her independence, i.e. her phone.”


“She is crazy about her phone!” interjected Anita in agreement.


“Most fourteen year olds are, right?” I concurred. “What might help is to sit down with her and negotiate a written contract as to what you expect of her if she wants to get her phone back. She needs to realize that her cell phone is not a right, it’s a privilege, and she needs to know exactly what she needs to do in order to have access to it.” Anita liked the sound of that idea, so we left the conversation at that.


A few days later, our paths crossed again. The expression on Anita’s face was all I needed to know that she had succeeded in getting through to her daughter. She explained to me how her daughter was surprised to learn of the requirements for college acceptance, specifically those related to architecture. It was the equivalent of flipping a switch. The next day, this fourteen year old girl approached her science & technology teacher to sign up for remedial support. As for the cellphone, Anita was still holding on to it but her daughter was thrilled about the idea of a contract. They had yet to pin down the exact criteria, but good grades, not just scraping by, were definitely at the base of the agreement.


“I can’t believe how quickly I was able to get through to her just by changing the way I was saying it!” Anita shared with me.


“It all comes down to re-framing the situation. You are still delivering the same message, but in a way that she can understand. You are speaking her language,” I explained.


“That’s exactly it!” Anita agreed. “You know, I feel bad about the way I am using her phone to get to her to work harder, it feels like blackmail, but she loved the idea of a contract, so I guess I shouldn’t feel bad…” she added.


“It’s not blackmail, it’s positive motivation. You are teaching her about the real world and natural consequences. That phone is like money to her. Just as we have to work to get a paycheck, she needs to do her work to get her phone. There’s no difference and it’s a valuable lesson on the importance of having a good work ethic,” I assured her.


People want to know why they need to do something. It’s an innate desire, and as Simon Sinek explains in his Ted Talk entitled How great leaders inspire action, it’s actually part of our biology. “When we communicate from the inside out (beginning with “why”, then “how”, then “what”) we are talking directly to the part of the brain that controls behavior.” In order to help a child to see “why”, we must put ourselves in his shoes in order to see the reason for which he is resisting our instructions in the first place. We must learn to see through his eyes. Doing so enables us to connect with the child. When a child feels heard and understood, then, and only then, should we have any hope of making any kind of significant impact on him. This is what I believe Nelson Mandela meant when he said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” And this, my friends, is what I believe empathic teaching is all about.

Photo Credit goes to oklanica on

The Return.

The Christmas Break has drawn to an end and it’s back to the juggling act of the school and work routine. Teachers, parents and children alike may be less than enthusiastic about getting the “machine” running again. In light of this reality, might I suggest the most basic of resolutions for the New Year?


What if we were to focus on being grateful? Our beliefs shape our reality and likewise, what we choose to put our attention upon feeds our spirit, for better or for worse.  By focusing on being grateful,  your return to the work and school routine will surely get off to a smooth start. This includes the self-talk that goes through our mind as we assess our situation. It takes a mere couple of seconds to send a kind message to our ourselves but the impact of these messages can have a lasting positive effect on our day, and by default, our positive sense of well-being can uplift those around us. Sounds good in theory right, but what would that look like?


  • When you’re bemoaning the fact that it’s back to packing lunches for yourself (and the kids), be grateful that you have food with which to fuel your body and feed your family.


  • When you force yourself (and the kids) to go to bed earlier, be grateful for the extra time you have had together as a family, for having a bed in which to lie down and a pillow to rest your head upon.


  • When the alarm goes off in the morning, be grateful for having a warm home in which to awake.


  • Whatever lovely winter weather greets you as you step outside, be grateful that you have clothes to protect you from the seasonal elements.


  • When you are sitting in traffic just trying to get yourself to work, be grateful that you have a form of transportation that allows you to arrive safely to your destination. If that’s not enough, place your attention on something that brings you joy. For instance, the longer you’re stuck in traffic, the more Adele and Ed Sheeran songs you get to sing (now you know what I’m doing as I line up to cross the Mercier Bridge.)


This next part is specifically for teachers:


  • When you greet your students, keep in mind that they may not have had two full weeks of rest. Not everyone necessarily had “Happy Holidays”. There may have been lots of running around visiting relatives and friends, and may have been more stressful than joyful. Think about the family drama that you witnessed during the holidays and consider the fact that your students may have lived through the same kind of events, if not worse. Take time to be grateful for one another and be sure to celebrate your reunion as a group.


Back to parents:


  • When your kids come home tired, remember that they need to have a safe place to release their fatigue. Be grateful for being together again and for having a home in which to rest and be ourselves. Moreover, be grateful for the opportunity to set up the conditions within which you can allow your children and yourself time and space to let off some steam. That might look like alone time in their bedrooms, or a nice, big hug to release endorphins in the body, bringing about a sense of calm.


  • When you’re rushing to get dinner on the table, be grateful for the meal you are about to share with each other.


  • When it’s time to take showers and brush your teeth and get into pajamas, be grateful for…yup…you guessed it…hot water, personal hygiene products, warm clothing, etc.


Have you got the hang of this yet? The moment you find yourself ready to complain or feel sorry for yourself, find something for which you are grateful. There are billions of people in this world who have less than you. The situation we are all well aware of with the Syrian Refugees ought to be enough to sober us up and allow us to find dozens, if not hundreds, of things for which we can be grateful in our daily lives. Happy New Year, Happy Thoughts.


If you are irritated by every rub, how will you be polished? – Rumi

Photo credit goes to BK from Flickr

Original Photo Credit goes to


It’s Kind to Be Firm

When we fail to teach our children a healthy dose of fear, we disable them.

Many times when I share my tough love approach, the parent with whom I am speaking will reply, “But he’s only five!” I get it. The society in which we live defines childhood as a time to be young and free. And to a certain extent, that is how it should be. However the protection of a child’s innocence can sadly and ironically come at the cost of his safety.

It is Kind to be Firm

I still remember clear as day the first time Yasmine refused to hold my hand in the grocery store parking lot. She was two years old and as feisty as feisty gets. Here’s the thing. There are some battles with our children that we need not fight. We can compromise and bend and adapt and…the list goes on. There are some things however that are non-negotiable. The battle that ensued, I mean dialogue, went something like this:

“Give Mommy your hand,” I said sweetly.

“No!!!!” she asserted as she yanked her hand out of mine.

I did not hesitate to grab her firmly by the arm as she started to take off ahead of me. Of course she cried out as if I was hurting her, compelling strangers in the near vicinity to turn and stare.

“I don’t care how loud you cry, Yasmine. It’s my job to keep you safe,” I said, pretending to not care about what others might be thinking of my firm hold on her.

“You’re hurting my arm!” she continued in a loud voice that I knew had the capacity to catch everyone’s attention in a five-mile radius.

“You should be holding my hand like a good listener. I promise you it hurts a lot more to get hit by a car. It’s not you I don’t trust Yasmine. I don’t trust the cars to be able to see you and to be careful around you. I give you lots of choices, all the time, but holding Mommy’s hand in the parking lot is not a choice,” I replied in a firm, confident voice. Of course, my ego was screaming at me to worry about what people around me were thinking. Instead of focussing on the feeling of embarrassment caused by my child’s behavior, I forced myself to be courageous enough to follow through on my beliefs, all the while hoping that perhaps I would inspire other parents to be just as openly firm with their own children. The turning point for me came when I decided to challenge the common belief that our children’s behavior is uniquely a reflection of our parenting skills. It is not. Children will challenge us. They will test the boundaries and often they will do so in the least opportune of places. Too often I see parents put their pride of worrying about what others are thinking first. I get it. But seriously people, this madness has to stop.

She resisted some more, as most toddlers do, but like I said before, there are some battles you simply must not lose. The choice to hold my  ground highlights the deepest and truest meaning of kindness. It is the utmost form of kindness to protect my child from the possibility of getting hit by a car. Therefore, as I insisted on the behavior I expected from her, I was sure to let her know that my love for her was my motivation for being so firm.

“Let go!” she cried.

“Are you ready to hold my hand like the good listener you usually are? When you are ready to make the right choice and hold my hand I will be able to let go of your arm. I love you too much to risk seeing you get hurt.”

Needless to say, this went on until we made it to the entrance of the store at which point we had graduated to a new problem. There was no way I was about to put up with her defying me the entire time we shopped, nor was there anyway I was about to use bribery to get her to listen. Instead, I used empathy and natural consequences as a way to persuade her to cooperate.

“Yasmine, you have a choice to make right now because I am done struggling with you. You have never acted like this before and you are certainly not going to start now. We need food for lunch and supper. This is work that Mommy needs to do for the family and I need your help. I know you know how to be a good helper. I have already planned for us to do some fun things this afternoon like playing with playdough and doing puzzles, but do you think I’m going to feel like playing and being kind with you when you can’t be kind with me?”

The mention of her favorite games caught her attention.

“How the rest of the day will go is in your control right now. We can have a good day or a bad day. Cooperate by sitting in the cart and by helping me to get some yummy food for home and we will get to have a good day. If you cannot be kind and cooperate, we are going to go home and you will sit alone in your room for a long time (keep in mind 10 minutes feels like an eternity to a toddler). I will not want to play with you because I will be too upset about your behavior.”

This form of clear communication works better than you might think. She did as was expected of her and I followed through on playing fun games with her after lunch. Do not mistake that for bribery or manipulation. There is a fine line between bribery and natural consequences, but it is essential we understand the difference if we are to effectively teach through kindness and empathy.

It is the utmost form of kindness to teach our children limits. It is also kind to model natural emotional reactions for our kids. When I explained to Yasmine that I would not feel like playing with her later, that would be true of most people, including our friends. In this way, I am teaching her that when you upset somebody, their feelings are hurt and they may not want to spend time with you. This is not the same as denying love to your child. It all comes down to your approach. If Yasmine had chosen to defy me rather than cooperate, I would have sternly marched her back to the car, returned home in a stony silence and plucked her down in her room. She would have stayed there until she was ready to apologize for the way she had acted. I would have checked in with her every couple of minutes, since she was quite young after all, but the scenario would only draw to an end once she finally gave in and sincerely apologized. (Yes, toddlers know the difference between real and fake apologies.) We would then have devised a plan for how she must behave in the future. She would have had to say in her own words that she was going to listen and be helpful. The act of explaining the plan herself would allow her to feel ownership of it, thereby making her feel like she was in control of the situation, which is all any toddler ever really wants, right?

Now, you may be thinking that’s a serious amount of effort to get your child to simply hold your hand in a parking lot. Is it really worth it? It was a couple of years later when I heard the tragic news that a young girl had lost her life when she was hit by a car in a parking lot not far from where we live. She had slipped away from her mother. I was not there. Please do not misunderstand me. I make no assumptions as to how this tragedy played itself out. Horrible, terrible, unthinkable accidents happen all the time. I speak from my own painful memories when I say: it is easy to say to ourselves, “It won’t ever happen to me,” or “Relax, let’s not over-react.” Call me paranoid, but it when it comes to the scary stuff we need to protect our kids from, a healthy dose of fear can mean the difference between life and death. The courage to discipline my child in front of strangers came from me saying to myself, “I much prefer to see my child ‘suffer’ in the safety of her bedroom than risk losing her forever.” So much in life is a mystery and completely out of our control. That precious child who lost her life at the tender age of three may have completed her soul’s mission. Perhaps it was meant to be. As I said, I withhold all judgement and I pray that her mother has found peace.

When Yasmine and I returned from the grocery store that day, I congratulated her on making the right decision. I was proud of her for using her brain to understand what was best. And I explained to her that parking lots can very dangerous. Getting hit by a car means she may stop breathing, and if she stops breathing, she may never see Mommy or Daddy again. That is an honesty that our children need to hear. A healthy dose of fear can keep our babies safe. Let’s stop being so scared of what others will think of us, and start being more scared of the possible consequences of inaction. Nobody ever wants to think the worst, but prevention and awareness are our greatest tools for keeping the worst at bay.

In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.

– Thomas Jefferson

Photo credit for Safety Pins goes to Emilian Robert Vicol on

Raising Siblings to Get Along Like Cats & Dogs


My girls had reached the age where I was ready to grant them the freedom to leave the home without adult supervision. We have tennis courts within a five-minute walk from our home. The girls had asked if they could walk there together and I agreed. Not twenty minutes later they were already back. Mikella needed to use the washroom.

“I’m going to go ahead since you have your scooter, okay? I’ll wait for you at the corner,” Yasmine told her, and off she went.

I figured I’d watch Mikella head off around the bend to meet up with her sister which proved to be a wise decision since she returned only a few minutes later.

“I can’t find her!” she told me, clearly nervous about having been left alone. I joined her in her search for Yasmine, consciously filtering my thoughts. “Don’t worry, I’m sure Yasmine is fine,” I told myself. Lo and behold, there she was waiting at the other corner…the one down the street. The girls had not realized that there were in fact two corners along the path to the tennis courts. Yasmine had assumed Mikella would feel comfortable enough to meet at the corner that required them to cross the street, not the first one that seemed inconsequential to her. While one child was busy feeling scared and abandoned, the other was feeling irritated and defensive. This was a perfect opportunity to focus their attention on the bigger picture.

“Girls, it was just a misunderstanding,” I explained, “There’s no need to place blame. What matters most is that each of you was trying to do the right thing. Mikella, you cared about being safe and making sure your sister was with you, and likewise, Yasmine, you were waiting for your sister, and even though it was taking a really long time, you didn’t give up and leave. You kept waiting, knowing that she was counting on you to be at the corner. The love and care you have just shown to one another is precious. We all misunderstand each other sometimes. Now we know. Now it’s clear. Off you go and enjoy yourselves.” And that’s just what they did. Yasmine’s defensiveness melted away, having been shown that her feelings were connected to her instinctive, loving need to protect her sister. Mikella felt reassured of her sister’s love, since at first the lack of her presence at her perceived meeting point had made her feel abandoned and unimportant.

How many variations of this conversation could we imagine instead? And how different would the outcomes have been? If I had not had the wherewithal to stay calm and see the forest for the trees, the situation could have degenerated very quickly. If I had allowed fear to take the reins I may have said things like, “Yasmine, how could you go ahead of your sister like that!?” or “What were you thinking? I was counting on you!” or even, “Clearly neither of you are ready to be trusted on your own!” How destructive would comments (or judgements) such as these have been?

We don’t just raise individual children. We raise siblings. We are constantly creating our family life which means finding the balance between respecting the individual and fostering mutual kindness and respect. This balancing act is alive and ever-changing. When we don’t like the road we’re on, we can change the course. It’s easier than we may think. It requires an investment of time and energy, but it is time and energy well-spent, I promise.

It is up to us to coach our children in how to get along. We cannot be confused when our kids do not live together harmoniously if we have not been modeling it and explicitly showing them how to replace their competitive or simply hurtful actions (often based in ego and insecurity) with more loving ones. We can coach them to see themselves in a different light. We have the opportunity to guide their understanding of family life. They should not be the ones setting the boundaries (or lack thereof), that is our job as parents. The following scripts have been very helpful in our home.


Here as a version of the message our eldest child, Yasmine, has been receiving over the years:

“Being the older sibling means you get to be first at all kinds of things. You will be the first to learn to ride a bike, the first to walk to the corner store by yourself, and the first to learn to drive a car. With these advantages come responsibilities. You will be asked to look out for your younger sibling, whether it’s to accompany her on her first bike ride or to join her on her first walk to the park. The love and attention you offer your younger sister will come back to you ten-fold. She will admire you in a way you can only begin to imagine. She may not always show it, but your approval, encouragement and support means the world to her. Your sister struggles to be ‘just as good’ as you. You will never know what it is to be the youngest in the family. You must show her understanding and compassion as she tries to keep pace with you. For every one thing you admire in her, she admires ten more things about you. That is the reality of having the eyes of a younger sibling watching you every step of the way. The words you speak to her have more power than you can truly comprehend. Be mindful of how you treat her. It is a privilege to be the oldest. It is the place your soul chose for you and it is not to be taken lightly. You are such a wonderful older sister and it’s obvious to us that your soul chose the perfect place for you.”


And now here is a version of the message Mikella, our second and youngest child, has been receiving over the years:

“Being in second place means you often have the impression of needing to be more patient, although in fact the opposite is often true. You will have to sit by and watch your older sibling do things for which you are not yet old enough and it may feel unfair and you may feel jealous, yet, chances are, given the fact that you have an older sibling to look out for you, you will enjoy these experiences at a younger age than she ever did. While Yasmine was eight years old before she could ride her bike around the block on her own, you got to enjoy that freedom from the age of six since she was out there with you. The fact that you are not the first child means that we as parents have already learned a few lessons ourselves, and we may be less worried and strict about things like eating candy, watching television or going to bed late. Even though you feel frustrated sometimes at watching her do things that you simply cannot yet do, you must remind yourself that your soul chose to be the youngest in the family. This is the place in which you are meant to be. We are grateful that your soul chose us to be your family. We had to wait a few years for you to arrive and are we ever glad you did!”

The bottom line is this: It is not normal for siblings to fight constantly. It may be a common occurrence in many homes but that does not mean it needs to be that way. As parents we can, and should, require more of them. Home is where we hang our heart. Every moment of every day is an opportunity to make new memories. What kind are we making? If you wish to improve the energy in your home, then it’s time that you do something about it. Change your beliefs, change your reality. This is why we explicitly talk to our children about their roles in the family through the lens of their soul. Like this, they see how choices have actually been made for them by their very own spirit (rather than dictated to them by us, the parents.) A reminder such as, “This is the only sister/brother you will ever have, you need to take care of each other,” can go a long way in guiding your children on the path of being lifelong friends.

Photo credit goes to b1ue5ky from

School’s Almost Out!

One of my recent posts  had to do with questioning the assumptions that give us a dramatic emotional response. So it seems appropriate that we talk about the end of the school year.

It’s a time of year when although we feel like we should get to chill and slow things down, the pace actually picks up as we race against the clock. Simultaneously, challenging behaviors tend to worsen.

A few years ago, in the month of June, a child whispered in my ear, “I’m really sad school is ending…”

I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I was truly caught off guard by this confession. How had it never occurred to me that for some kids, summer is not a time of fun in the sun?

I asked this young girl to tell me why she felt that way. She explained that her parents would be working all summer. They were not able to get any vacation time. Plus, she was not looking forward to going back to the same day camp where she had been the previous summer. Her camp leader had been really strict, border-line mean.

This little girl had been sulky in my class for nearly a week. I had tried to reach out to her, but she would just shrug her shoulders and tell me she was tired.

I wonder now if the reason she had held back from admitting the truth was because I had been trying to set a tone of celebration in the class. She was not able to identify with that and I was therefore inadvertently alienating her. I had assumed that all of the kids were looking forward to the summer. Let’s be clear, I’m pretty sure all kids WANT to look forward to the summer, it’s just that sadly, that’s not the case.

The message I wish to deliver to teachers is this: As unfavorable behaviors escalate in the classroom, question your assumptions about why this is the case. If you have a tendency to sound like you’re looking forward to the end, try to remember that some kids may be hurting. They may need to hear you say how much you are going to miss them, ALL of them. Take the ones who have challenged you the most aside and let them know that you would like nothing more than to create happy memories of these last few weeks of school. Acknowledge that you have had your ups and downs together, but tell them how these challenges have only made you love them more. Let them know that you see their goodness, and that you believe in them. Ironic though it may seem, some of our most challenging students really look forward to school. Many kids will be saying goodbye to their friends for the entire summer. Do not underestimate how attached the children have become to you as their teacher, either.

My message for parents is this: you may not be in a position where vacation is an option, but perhaps a heart-to-heart with your child on why that’s the case could really help them to see how fortunate they are nonetheless. We have a tendency to compare ourselves to those who have it “better” than us, but we neglect to see the billions of people in the world who have it much tougher than us. Teach your child to count her blessings. Then, sit down as a family, pull out the calendar and pencil in things like: go for a walk in the forest, play tennis or basketball at the local courts, go for ice cream, hang out in the backyard or at the park, go for a bike ride through the neighborhood, visit our cousins, have a friend sleep-over… You get the idea. What kids want more than anything is to know that they will have time to kick back with their family and friends.

One more thing: if your child complains that her camp leader is mean, please listen and react. So long as the camp organizers do not get feedback, they have no reason to intervene. Do not be aggressive in your intervention (I have a post on my blog entitled “Kindness is…” that’s worth checking out), but do intervene.

That little girl taught me to ask the kids questions about their summer activities and I was shocked and saddened at how many of them had negative feelings about their camp counsellors. That just seems crazy to me! It does not have to be this way.


Pre-sales for my upcoming book begin this Wednesday, June 1st 2016 as of 12pm!

Follow this link as of Wednesday: La Ruche Montreal


Like my Facebook Page – Teach Kindness First – to get all the latest updates.

The journey continues to evolve and grow – thanks for being a part of it!

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.

It Takes a Village (based on a true story)


To empathize is to civilize. To civilize is to empathize. – Jeremy Rifkin

Do you believe it takes a village to raise a child? Your answer to this one question could very well determine whether or not you are ready to embrace the philosophy I am proposing. Examples abound around the world of societies who truly put this belief into practice. While I believe our society used to embrace this philosophy, we seem to have drifted away from this form of co-existence. Before we look at home and school environments, let’s take a moment to consider our behavior as a society in public spaces.


Consider the following circumstances. Imagine you are in a grocery store when a child starts pitching a fit. What goes through your mind? Do you immediately feel sorry for them? Or do you immediately start judging them? Although I have never outwardly passed judgement on a parent (at least I don’t think I have, selective memory perhaps!), I know in the past I have been guilty of being impatient in situations like these. Thoughts such as, “Children aren’t being taught how to behave these days!” or “What was that mother thinking bringing her child to the store when he’s clearly exhausted!” would go through my head.


Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to judge others than it is to empathize? To put ourselves in each other’s shoes takes time and effort. It means you have to hold back from jumping to conclusions and actually think about what that person might be going through. Add to that the fact that judging others can make us feel better about ourselves and it’s no wonder that we are amazed when we actually witness people doing the right thing even if they think nobody is watching. The truth I have come to realize is that many parents feel overwhelmed and at a loss as to how to react to their children at times and many of them are too proud to admit it. There is so much pressure in today’s society to be the perfect parent and very little space for allowing ourselves to ask for help when we need it. It all boils down to pride and it is getting in the way of living a more loving life. It is not for nothing that pride is often considered the worst of the seven deadly sins. It is our pride that leads us to judge ourselves as better than others. While drawing conclusions about what we would or would not do in any given situation can serve us, we rarely judge others with the pure intent to learn from the situation ourselves. The act of being judgemental feeds our sense-of-self, our ego, our pride and in most cases it does not serve the one being judged. We have all heard the expression, “Don’t kick me when I’m down.” and yet that is exactly what we are doing when we judge a stranger.


Now let’s imagine the same scenario with a twist. As you witness a child having a melt-down in the grocery store, the mother turns to you and says, “Any suggestions? I have no idea what to do!” I can’t help but think that you would be less harsh in your judgements. By appealing to you for help, she has openly admitted that she does not have all the answers to parenting. Well how about that. This is what “it takes a village to raise a child” looks like. Here is someone who is willing to put herself out there. How often have we actually witnessed this kind of behavior though? Unfortunately we don’t see it very often, but the more people who get on board with openly admitting to being imperfect, the more often these instances may occur.


What would a full-blown village mentality look like though? Let’s take this same grocery store scenario. It bears mentioning that this is a true story. It was 4pm on a late weekday afternoon when I ran into the grocery store to grab something for supper. As I rushed through the store, anxious to get what I needed, a little girl, no-older than four, launched into a fit. “I want Daddy!” she began screaming repeatedly at the top of her lungs. The mother spoke quietly with her daughter, asking her to stop, telling her they were almost done. This did nothing to discourage her daughter’s rant. “I want Daddy! I want Daddy!” she continued, tears now streaming down her face. The mother wasted no time getting the things she needed, dragging her child along with her as gently as possible, given the circumstances. I discretely observed the pair, fascinated by the mother’s outward air of calm. At no point did she lash out at her child, and after a few failed attempts to calm her down, she let her know in a quiet voice that they were almost done. She amazed me. To this day I wonder what was really going on? Had the dad gone away for business? Had the parents split-up? Was the little girl angry at her mom and trying to hurt her by demanding to have her father? Had the little girl missed her nap and so she was simply exhausted and completely beyond herself given the time of day? Either way, the mother’s resistance to engage in her child’s meltdown was something to behold. My guess would be that either she had mastered the art of hiding her emotions internally or, and I wish the latter to be true, she had mastered the art of empathy and compassion and we were witnessing it being put into action.


On that particular late-afternoon, we were an usual group of people. I say this because it was the first time that I ever witnessed such kindness and generosity of spirit from all the people in this mother’s vicinity. Not one person displayed impatience towards the child’s screaming. Surrounding this mother, an air of compassion blossomed. As she made her way to the self-check-out cash, I watched an older couple exchange a sympathetic look that said, “Oh my…remember those days?” The lady standing behind me in line at the cash smiled and said to me, “A mother’s job is never easy.” But best of all, was the cashier who spoke to me saying, “Poor thing, that little girl is really having a tough time, isn’t she?” Wow. I was so proud of us, this group of strangers thrown together and yet somehow connected on the same wave-length of empathy and compassion. Never have I seen so many strangers gathered in one place without at least one feeling the need to judge the situation in a negative light. It was beautiful. The question is: why is this so rare?


I cannot even count the number of times that I have witnessed judgemental stares in a shopping mall or a grocery store. It’s true that more and more parents seem scared to discipline their child in public, but why do we think that is? I get the sense that we are damned if we do or damned if we don’t. We are so busy worrying about what other people will think, that we forget to simply do what feels right. When fear of being judged is our motivator, we are doomed to fail! The next time you find yourself in this situation, I invite you to try something new. For one, resist judging the parent’s actions. It is none of your business and you have no idea what they have been through so far that day. If the opportunity presents itself, make a simple compassionate comment such as, “We’ve all had days like this before.” And to the stranger who is voicing a complaint you could say, “It’s people like you who make it hard for the mom to know what to do! Mind your business!” Just kidding! That may be what you are thinking, but instead of addressing the one doing the judging, how about saying something kind to the parent so that the “judger” can overhear you, followed by a kind smile aimed at the “judger”, eye contact and all. If you feel the need to say something, I recommend something to the effect of “A smile can go a long way.” or “I’m on a mission to build a kinder world. You’re welcome to join me.” Alright, I may have gone a little off-track here. It’s just to prove to you that I am on this journey to being a kinder and more empathic person, too. I’m modeling that we may have thoughts that are unkind, but that does not mean we should act on them, and if we give ourselves a moment to think before we act, our heart can take over for our ego and beautiful things can happen…


What am I trying to say? I’m saying that before we even talk about the relationship between home and school, we need to look at our everyday interactions with strangers. What are we doing to take care of one another? We need to be able to handle these everyday situations with basic kindness and grace. Why? At the end of the day, we are all human. We will all make mistakes and they will not always be in the privacy of our own home. If we cannot find compassion for a mother struggling to get groceries done with a toddler in tow, how can we expect to find empathy for the teacher who loses her patience with her students, or the parent who berates his child in front of the teacher, or the child who is rude to his mother in the midst of a family gathering. We must learn to be less insecure, less fearful of what others will think, and allow our hearts to lead in the place of our pride, if we expect to teach our kids the necessary life lessons for today’s world.