Do you remember being a little kid in your early years of school, sitting on the floor in a circle with your legs crossed? Maybe your teacher was reading a story or maybe you were singing a song and shaking maracas and tambourines. Sometimes a child would arrive late -- late to school in the morning, or perhaps just returning from the nurse's office or the bathroom. For some reason that child was not there when the circle formed, and as that child approaches -- let's call her Katie -- the teacher says something.
"Ok everyone, scooch back a bit to make room in the circle for Katie."
And all of the children wiggle side-to-side or push back on their bums or crawl on all fours to make the circle bigger, so there will be a place for Katie to squeeze in. It happens in schools around the globe every single day. Teachers socialize children in this manner, and although we don't learn everything we need to know in Kindergarten, we do learn pretty much everything that comprises the Golden Rule at that age, and I would argue that civilization itself began, and endures, based upon a similar ethical foundation all around the world.
But somewhere along the line, this simple, elemental lesson is forgotten or ignored. If there is no teacher, parent or other adult present to require children to make room for each other, they don't. And many of them grow up to be adults who form circles that are rigid and circumscribed. Middle school becomes a metaphor for life: You can "check out" anytime you like, but you can never leave. Circles exist within families, among friends, at work, and if you want to draw out the metaphor even further, they exist in the virtual world as well.
There are things that adults say to each other that are the opposite of what teachers say to children when there is no room for them in the circle. "That's just the way it is sometimes," "You need a thicker skin," and my very favorite, "Don't take it personally." Katie, returning from the bathroom to a tight circle, is never told any of these things. She doesn't need to change -- the group does. And she believes that until the day she doesn't.
I know what you're thinking now. It isn't possible, or in some cases remotely desirable, to have big, porous social circles everywhere. Life is sometimes deliberately or accidentally about exclusion as an unfortunate casualty of the focus on who can be comfortably included. The playground is a jungle, even after we've grown up. And that's what children see. They may hear a teacher telling them to be inclusive, not to bully, not to socially isolate other kids, but they see that this is the way of the world. In a Darwinian sense, they naturally strive for status and derive it to some extent by denying it to others. And the more circles you're in, the less you're able to see who is not.
Children grow up and harden because they have to; life isn't fair and resilience is adaptive. I was on the phone today with a client who is a teacher and he said, "I'll take EQ over IQ any day of the week." But as parents, we worry a lot more about IQ, and it can't be taught. EQ, on the other hand, can, at least to some extent.
Since we know that "do as I say, not as I do" doesn't work as a parenting technique, we really do have to demonstrate kindness, inclusion, and emotional intelligence when our children are watching and even when they aren't, because integrity is what you do when no one's looking. When our kids create circles that feel warm, in part because others on the outside are cold, we need to challenge that behavior. There have been a lot of articles lately about mothers who actively exclude other mothers' daughters, to try to socially engineer secure cliques for their own girls. They have no inkling of their own shame. They must not remember Kindergarten circles, and the essential humanity represented by scooching back.
We all need to scooch back -- in our families, among our friends, at our places of work, and online, too, because our children are watching, and because we need to be decent human beings, period. Katie may be your aunt or your neighbor or your coworker or your son's classmate. Make room for her just as you'd want her to make room for you. That's the Golden Rule. And it's aspirational parenting at its best!
Lori Day is an educational psychologist, consultant and parenting coach with Lori Day Consulting in Newburyport, MA. She is the author of Her Next Chapter: How Mother-Daughter Book Clubs Can Help Girls Navigate Malicious Media, Risky Relationships, Girl Gossip, and So Much More, and speaks on the topic of raising confident girls in a disempowering marketing and media culture. You can connect with Lori on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.