Choose love, be kind. Be the change.

The tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School occurred on a day created to celebrate love. There are no words to describe how devastating the after-effects of such a horrific crime are, not only directly to the victims and their loved ones, but also indirectly to the most vulnerable members of our culture at large. Across the country, people have come to realize that the rise in atrocious acts of school violence are horrifying symptoms of a much larger disease. 

Human violence is an extreme product of our most primal urges to fight, defend ourselves and survive. These urges are hardwired into our brains. Along with these reflexive instincts is an innate push to connect with other humans, because we are better able to survive as a group than as individuals. The fear that drives aggressive behaviors is increased when we feel threatened by others, different from others or isolated and alone. The reverse is true as well; when we feel connected to and perceive ourselves as similar to others, empathy and positive behaviors such as compassionate acts increase. 

In every life situation, our primitive brain areas take in information, and compare and analyze it to decide if the situation is good (approachable) or bad (scary and threatening). This process is very quick. For example, research shows that when we look at a face, our brain makes a judgment about it within 1/100th of a second! Most often, we react without thinking to the judgment our lower brain areas have made. If our logical brains are working, and we are socially aware of what is happening, we can make a careful heart-felt choice about how we will respond.

However, if there are problems with awareness, attention and self-control, we are controlled by the fear and anger. Each year, teachers, therapists and parents witness and report declines in children's social emotional learning, attention, emotional regulation and self-control. What is the reason for these declines? Many researchers and experts agree that an increase in use of computers and smartphones has reduced the time that children have to engage in actual, not virtual, opportunities for social emotional learning. While technological advances have brought us numerous benefits, they have also created a source of entertainment, escape, disengagement, and instant gratification that has reduced the quality of meaningful, real time, human face to face social interaction. 

My fellow teachers, therapists, parents and I have shed many, many tears this week. The problem is so dark and overwhelming, and its weight is tremendous. And yet there is light and hope. I think of the ultimate selfless act of love performed by the teachers who lost their lives on Wednesday, the most profound sacrifice one human can make for another. I think of the brave student survivors who are standing up to effect change and call for socially responsible gun control laws. It may be because this has hit so close to home, but I see, in the aftermath of this tragedy, an outpouring of compassion in the call to act that goes beyond empathy for the many many victims. Compassion involves not only empathy, but the desire to act to relieve the suffering of others.  And I remember that we can BE THE CHANGE. 

In every situation, we can choose love, and be kind. 

In any situation, we have multiple choices: we can act to protect ourselves, to preserve our self-image and make ourselves look better than others, to escape an uncomfortable situation, to push away someone who is different or unpleasant, to seek pleasure over the boredom that can accompany patience. As adults, we can actively engage in the choice to act kindly instead of selfishly. We can use our anger for what nature intended- as a burst of energy to fuel a fight for justice. As a source of kindling for the fire of compassionate action. 

Most importantly, we can act to teach our children to choose love and be kind. We can model it by giving unconditional kindness and support, firm but loving guidance and constant reinforcement. We can be present enough to connect wth our children and to notice when they need our full attention. We can make it our goal to notice and recognize every instance of kindness and compassion, because the actions that we water are the ones that will grow. This simple act of repeatedly choosing to act with kindness, and committing to teach our children to choose love when faced with fear and anger can have profound widespread cultural effects. 

Here are some strategies for building the ability to choose love and be kind:

1. Practice the positive. Research shows that practicing positive emotions on purpose actually improves our ability to experience positive emotions naturally, and results in improved health, attention, and engagement in prosocial actions. We teach little ones to practice loving kindness by saying, "May you be healthy, may you be happy, may you be loved" to friends and family throughout the day. This can also be practiced more formally while sitting in a group or in pairs. For this practice, the child breathes in to "grow love big" and then breathes out to "send the love" to herself, and then to others. You can also practice loving-kindness during real life circumstances; for example, if an ambulance goes by, encourage your child to send love to the victim. If you are standing in line, take the time to silently send love to others in line. With intentional practice of sending love to others comes spontaneous authentic expression of love and kindness.

2. Teach a child how to choose love instead of complying and "being good". Instead of labeling a child's choices as "good" and "bad", discuss choices as "kind" or "helping" choices and "hurting" choices. When a child engages in a hurting choice, explain that he can "choose love" next time, and help him problem solve how to make that choice.

3. Model compassion. When a child is experiencing a difficult situation or emotion and may have made a hurting choice, express your feelings of compassion, e.g., It looks like you felt really angry when you threw your truck. I am feeling compassion for you. Can I give you a hug to help you feel better?, instead of disappointment or anger, e.g., That was a bad choice to throw your truck, it makes me sad when you don't make good choices. Model a positive response and yet maintain boundaries for supportive discipline. 

4. Teach opportunities for compassionate connection. When you notice that someone is struggling, lonely or may be feeling different or left out, encourage your child to notice how the other person may be feeling and to reach out and offer kindness and inclusion.  

5. Celebrate good news daily. Make time everyday to ask your child to report any "good news" that happened that day. "Good news" can include things or events  that brought your child joy, made her laugh, inspired her or made her feel grateful.  

6. Notice and reinforce kindness and compassion often. The brain processes social praise in the same area that it processes physical rewards and pleasure; in other words, the brain processes positive words and compliments in the same area that processes the pleasure of eating ice cream. It can be helpful to have a visual and tangible reminder to notice and practice kindness, such as a counting bracelet. For this bracelet I used the letters to spell out CHOOSE LOVE. Each time the child engages in a kind act (e.g., breathes to calm down or flips a water bottle instead of hitting, helps a sibling clean up a mess, offers encouraging words to someone who feels sad or left out), she slides a bead over. The goal of sliding all the beads over can be linked to a reward to increase motivation. A great social connection building reward is to let the child choose a game or activity to engage in with an adult.

Here is an image with the steps for making the bracelet:


With much love and gratitude,








Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published