I was on the playground last week when I noticed a little girl – “V” – sitting by herself looking despondent. This is a child who is very empathetic to others and quite sensitive, but self assured and rarely phased by the slights of other children. V is resilient in every sense of the word. So her demeanor on this day surprised me.
When I went over to ask her what was wrong, she turned away and wouldn’t speak to me. While I was probing her for information, three other little girls approached us.
One of them said: “She’s sad because we told her she couldn’t play with us.” The others looked on in earnest agreement. They studied at the sad-looking V. Then they looked at me expectantly.
It struck me how honest and sincere they appeared. It almost seemed like I didn’t need to say anything. Like they were going to take the words out of my mouth.
“That doesn’t seem very friendly,” I said. “And look at V now. We don’t want to make people feel sad.”
Before I had even finished my spiel, one of the girls, the other two quickly in tow, rushed to V with her arms out. “We want you to play with us!” she said cheerfully. V wasn’t having any of it. She got up and ran away. The three girls ran after her.
I watched this scene wondering how this was going to play out and secretly hoping they were fast enough to catch up to V and right their wrong. Interestingly, V slowed down. The girls caught up to her and the three of them embraced V in the most gentle group hug I’d ever seen from collection of kids this age!
I snuck a little closer, wanting to hear how they were resolving this but not wanting them to know I was listening. The conversations that kids have are so much more fascinating when adults are not perceived to be around.
“We are sorry,” One of them said. “We want you to play with us,” said another. “Yes,” the third agreed. V seemed satisfied with this. She perked right up and they all went running off together.
I will never know the whole story here as is the case with a thousand other social incidents that my class has throughout the day. I only hear about it when a party has been injured or frustrated enough to finally go get the teacher. I’m often unclear on the origin of social conflicts and count on the kids to report accurately to me so I can help, or I hope they can solve the conflict on their own.
In the case of V, I was encouraged to see the girls acknowledge their mistake without even really needing me. They saw that they had hurt their classmate. They knew quickly they wanted to remedy it. They didn’t care about saving face or making excuses. They did the right thing (after doing the wrong thing). They fixed it in a truly genuine, heart-felt way, non-defensive way.
It’s a simple story, maybe even a sappy one, but nevertheless, one that made an impression on me. One of the powerfully unique things about children is that they are, for a short time, wholly unselfconscious. They can make a mistake and then quickly make up for it without feeling burdened with shame or bogged down with complicated baggage. And the victims of the mistake are just as quick to forgive and move on. It is just pure.
As a teacher of young children, I often envy them for things like this. I wonder where that all goes when we grow up. When we hurt people, why is it so hard to say we are sorry. Why is it so hard to forgive those who hurt us? Of course it’s riddled with the complex dynamics of being adults and all the neuroses we develop as we grow. We hold grudges and take things personally and throw on meaning to things when we shouldn’t.
Kids take things at face value and don’t make it more complicated than that. They live in the moment. When you have a classroom of kids who behave this way, it can foster a supportive and trusting environment.
These kids aren’t little angels all the time. They shouldn’t be. Really, who would want that? How boring! They make mistakes, they can be mean, they can be destructive. But it’s all just experimenting and learning how to be good citizens of the world. The classroom is practice ground.
A kid can go ahead and knock over a classmate’s block tower. But the expectation is that he is affected by what he did afterward. He sees his peer’s shocked face. He wants to rectify it. He can apologize and actually help rebuild the broken tower. The other kid can be upset, but he accepts the mistake, and allows the help. They work together to fix it. We all move on.
That’s the ideal of course. But every now and then, it happens. And it feels good.