If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
At lunchtime on the first day of fourth grade my best friend Jimmy stuck a deviled egg in my face and said “Eat it.” Back then, a deviled egg was a foreign substance to me, and I was not feeling adventurous.
“No, thank you,” I said.
“Eat it,” said Jimmy more insistently
“No. I don’t want it.”
I took it in my hand, put it in my mouth and ate it.
That I have since come to like deviled eggs is beside the point. That he thought he was doing me a favor is irrelevant. The point is that I allowed my best friend to bully me. I felt humiliated.
When our children go off to school, if they seem anxious, they should be. They want friends; they’ll get conflicts. Social anxiety is part of their alert system.
We are social animals. Other people are essential to our happiness and success, but other people can also be a problem. Sometimes, my friends are enemies, and sometimes enemies can be friends. In fact, which is which is actually mostly (though not entirely) a matter of interpersonal skill and up to me. Coming out of a conflict okay depends on my competence, not on the other person. This is actually the main reason for school. Those “non-cognitive skills,” so essential for success, are best learned and practiced in a social environment. What’s harder: a math problem, or a social problem?
Great teachers know this is their number one job. They might present a hypothetical egg story at a class meeting. “What would you do in Ricky’s shoes?” will generate a long list of possible defenses, some humorous, some violent, some clever, some crazy.
When asked to choose their favorite, most kids will pick one like: “Take it from him, smile, and give it back to him saying, ‘Show me how!’ with a twinkle in my eye,” over “Swat his hand away and knock the egg to the ground.” Then, the class can talk about how hard it is to be smart when you’re mad.
Fear and anger are legitimate messages from deep in the brain: WARNING! Integrity at risk! But to get mad is stupid and, well, crazy. Friends are assets and enemies liabilities; so we have to keep growing our repertoire for turning disputes into mutually rewarding partnerships and social challenges into collaborations.
Learning how to flip from mad to smart, requires imagination, and imagination is at the heart of competence.
- First, decide what you’ll do if it turns out you actually are dealing with a bully. What’s the minimum requirement for integrity? (Don’t eat the egg.)
- Then, say to yourself: This person is not the problem, but is presenting a problem. Treat him the way you would most fondly imagine he would be rather than the bully he seems to be. (“Jimmy’s just playing. I’ll play back.”)
- Use the relationship. (Smiling reminds us we’re friends.)
- Have fun being creative. (Experiment with new behaviors, and expand your anti-tyranny repertoire.)
- Show. Don’t tell. Use language he can understand. Words are the source of misunderstandings.
Expect imperfection all along the way. If you get mad, say, “My bad.” If he gets mad, say, “I’m sorry I made you mad.” (Of course you are. After all, your intention was to be a friend, and you weren’t creative enough.)
Everyone wants to “find true love,” but true love is more of a strategy for being happy and successful than a state of being. Love is the motivational center of a process that unites our executive self, our relationship self, our vulnerable underbelly, our body and our soul. Give executive self a rest, lead with relationship self, and lovingly open up to learning from challenge.
Love feels like giving up yourself, but it is the strategy for creating your self. This is what all that pain is for: to make us stronger, fuller selves.
“If you do that, you are not my friend,” is so third grade.
Instead of “How was school today?” what if we asked our kids “Solve any social problems today?” School is best as a laboratory for turning conflicts into collaborations and to grow their anti-bullying repertoire so that friends never become enemies.
To make America greater, we all have to get better at this.