Ten-year-old Evan Vargo had a few questions for the kids at summer camp who thought it was funny to bully a certain girl.
“She had autism,” Evan said. “They called her ‘slowpoke.’ They called her ‘dumb girl.’ ”
Evan, who was bullied himself once on a school bus, walked up to the group and asked:
“Could we stop? How would you feel if people were making fun of you?”
Taking those steps was “a little bit scary,” said Evan, of Andover. “They might punch you or say something mean. But when you start your sentence, they just back off.”
And the girl? “She gave me a huge hug. It made me feel proud.”
Austin Sween of St. Paul had a question, too. When the 11-year-old saw a girl being teased during lunch at his former elementary school, he asked her, “Are you OK?”
Then he walked over to the table of teasers. He said: “She is trying to eat her lunch. You shouldn’t be doing this.”
Austin said he didn’t care what those kids thought of him, but he did care about the well-being of the girl. “As far as I know,” he said, “she didn’t have any friends.”
Now she does.
Evan and Austin are champions in my book. And role models.
They are children (albeit unusually articulate and mature children) who, like us, are observing an increasingly crass and divisive world. Unlike many of us, they are choosing a different response.
The kindness response.
While they likely have compassion in their genes, both boys credit a unique program for guiding them to goodness.
In October, Evan and Austin participated in a “respect workshop” as members of the Minnesota Boychoir (boychoir.org).
Their beloved longtime director Mark Johnson brought in Donald Gault, creator of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Building Peaceful Community (buildingpeaceful community.org).
Under Gault’s guidance, boys in all four choirs delved into how our brains work, learned about good stress, and were encouraged to welcome that soft spot they all have that guides them to empathy.
Then the boys wrote contracts for kindness that will become posters to hang on the choir room walls, reminding them to help each other, “work to be better than you are,” “stand up for each other” and “stand up to bullies.”
“Donald talked about being kind and that we should treat each other with respect,” Austin said. “I learned a lot. It opened up my eyes to see people can make a difference.”
“He wants us to work together, support each other,” Evan added.
Nobody was more inspired than Gault, who has worked in the public health field for 30 years, but mostly with adults.
“Frankly, adults can be a little hard,” said Gault, who called the Boychoir experience “amazing and inspiring.”
“But when you see the agreements these boys wrote, they were so authentic. They were really thinking about it. They understand that being kind and good to each other is how they make their best music.”
Obviously, learning to be kind and good happens in many venues.
And doesn’t happen in many venues.
The subject got national attention recently when Highlights for Children magazine released findings from its large annual study. I was happy to hear that “Goofus and Gallant” are still alive and well.
I was concerned, though, to learn that while we parents and other adult influencers want our children to be kind, many of the kids aren’t getting that message.
The study surveyed 2,000 children, ages 6 to 12, across the country. Among the questions:
What kind of encounters are they witnessing on athletic fields, in restaurants and stores, or riding in the car?
What messages are they hearing from their parents and other adults about the importance of kindness?
Do they witness their parents or other adults behaving rudely and, if so, how does that make them feel?
Nearly half the kids thought that what mattered most to their parents was that they be happy, followed by that they do well in school. Just under one-fourth thought that Mom and Dad most wanted them to be kind.
Sixty-eight percent had seen adults acting unkindly, which made them feel uncomfortable, sad, scared or embarrassed — a wake-up call for parents, said Highlights editor in chief Christine French Cully.
“Our kids are watching us,” she said. They’re watching when we call someone an idiot as we’re driving, or when we hang up on a telemarketer or become impatient with a cashier in the grocery store.
The study found that adults are more likely to be unkind when they do not have direct contact with the other person, such as in the car or on their phone.
Most kids, on the other hand, think it’s never OK to be mean to another person, Cully said. “That was one of the little surprises.”
Cully is not pointing fingers. She understands the challenges of parenting today.
“The political discourse is uncivil. Economically, a lot of families are struggling. We watch the evening news and our hearts beat faster. But we must, in front of our children, learn how to moderate our responses. It’s an opportunity to help them understand that conflict and stress are part of our daily lives and there are ways to cope.”
And when we screw up, we should apologize.
“For a child to hear, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I wish I had handled that better,’ that’s powerful. An apology to our kids is huge,” she said. “We’re not perfect, nor do we expect them to be perfect.”
That’s a relief to Jennifer Stevens of St. Paul. Her 8-year-old son, Elliott, is also a member of the Boychoir. He said he’s observed “so many people screaming” when he’s on the soccer field.
“The world is a much harder place than when I was growing up,” Stevens said. “Those lessons, it’s harder to teach, because they’re seeing it everywhere. Fuses are much shorter. Time is so much more limited.”
Then she saw the Boychoir contract for kindness and felt inspired.
“I was just so taken by it, especially because these are young men in the arts who can be the brunt of bullying. They were able to talk about each other in a loving, mature way. Several weeks later, Elliott was talking about how he could be an example,” she said.
“They’re like little ambassadors.”