After I wrote a previous blog about the creeps one meets on city streets, I started taking mental notes about the different kinds of people one meets day to day. This is certainly part of a kid’s education. Exactly a week after my encounter with the neighbor who tried to intimidate my son and I not to play in the park we had an exactly opposite encounter.
We live a few blocks from a branch of the San Francisco public library. I allow my son to ride his bike to the library by himself. The street he rides on is a busy one. Although the traffic does make me nervous I think that at ten kids are generally capable of crossing streets safely. I’m also pretty confident about Jack being savvy enough not to engage with potentially dangerous people. I do breathe a sigh of relief whenever he comes back safe and sound but I think a little “free range” activity is good for kids.
The library opens at ten. Jack leaves around 9:30 and I give him some money to stop at Muddy’s, a local café, and have breakfast by himself. He really enjoys that. The other day he and I walked to the library together and stopped at Muddy’s to have coffee. As I was ordering at the counter the café owner, Hisham, asked if Jack was my son. When I said yes he proceeded to tell me what a fine kid he thinks Jack is. He said that he was very impressed with how politely and responsibly Jack behaves when he goes to the café by himself. He even paid Jack the ultimate compliment any father can pay a boy. “If you were a few years older,” he said, “I would introduce you to my daughter.”
The whole time Jack was listening to us, a little shy but also flushed with pride. I thanked Hisham and felt proud of Jack but I kept thinking about exactly why Hisham’s words made me feel so good. There were reasons other than the gratification of hearing someone complimenting your son.
First, hearing Hisham made me feel safe for my kid. When you realize there are people in your neighborhood who take notice of kids in a kind and positive way you feel that the environment in which you live is not so hostile. This was so unlike the neighbor last week who snarled at Jack to get him to leave the park. Not only did I feel that Jack was safe while he was at Muddy’s but that knowing Hisham he could always run into the café if he felt unsafe on the street. This trust is what builds communities.
Second, hearing someone say something good about my son I realized how little we do that these days. Back when Jack was in second grade (I wrote about it in an old blog) I noticed that while he never had anything bad to say about his teacher, his teacher never had anything good to say about him. Over the years, in fact, I hardly heard any teacher say something good about any kid – with exceptions in the case of a couple of absolutely perfect little girls. In fact, even when there was something good that a kid had accomplished – say, good test scores or a nice piece of writing – the teacher would gloss over that to get to some shortcoming, “problem,” or just negative comment. In my experience the teachers were more interested in making “diagnoses” than in teaching or the learning process. I think taking on the role of diagnosis-maker made them feel more elevated professionally. Or maybe they thought they were not doing their job well if they didn’t work hard at finding all kinds of things “wrong” with kids.
What was particularly interesting to me was that our school was supposedly a “Tribes” school. The primary precepts of a Tribes school are these: Attentive Listening; Appreciation/No Put-downs; Mutual Respect; and the Right to Pass. I always thought of these precepts as a way of introducing a useful vocabulary to children. Beyond that I hardly saw any effects. I particularly noticed the way the second precept was talked about. In our school, in contrast to “put downs” the kids were encouraged to give each other “put ups” – that is, to praise and compliment each other.
It’s certainly good to teach children to find and express good things about each other. The trouble is, I never encountered any “put ups” coming from the teachers. And when the teachers don’t acknowledge good things in kids how are the kids going to learn to do it to each other?
It was very clear that the instruction to give “put ups” to each other felt completely false to the kids. And sure enough, they made a mockery of the whole Tribes idea by giving each other such deliberately fake praise that made the recipient feel more insulted than complimented. As far as I could see the kids hardly ever saw kind words and appreciations expressed in a natural and spontaneous way by the adults. In other words, the Tribes formula became yet another “do as I say not as I do” instruction.
Which brings me back to Hisham. In many cultures – in our neighborhood the Arab and Latino cultures – people are much more forthcoming about praising children. Adults are openly kind and generous to children. They always have a sweet gesture, gentle pat, or kind word for them. At the core of it is taking notice: I see you, child, and you are good. The kind words that are expressed to children or about them, make parents and kids feel good. But more importantly, they teach a valuable lesson to kids: Not just a “do as I do” lesson but something like a “I practice what I preach” lesson. It’s called honesty.
Honesty, generosity, trust, feeling noticed, protected, safe… Alas, isn’t this what community is all about?