Every human needs to feel connected. When we meet with friends or associates with children, we make sure to quickly address any children and let them voice an opinion or two; we let them know we appreciate them and see them as real people there too. Then the received and connected children can relax and not feel the need to be connected — they will already feel acknowledged. Then if we need to address any unacceptable behavior of theirs, we won't be rowing upstream with them.
The efficacy of this principle first became clear to me at Adidam's Big Wisdom Free School, where I had the opportunity to be exposed to great teachers. I remember being exasperated by a new six-year-old named Jubal who bullied the weaker children, and I couldn't control his behavior. In the playgrounds, I sounded like a broken record, "Jubal, stop hitting Donya. Jubal, you can't just take the ball away from Chris", etc., etc.
One day, I looked over and saw Jubal bullying a younger kid and was about to yell, when I dropped my arms in overwhelmed frustration. My master teacher, Peter Churchill, saw my surrender and my situation and rushed over, offering, "You want me to show you how to handle Jubal?" When I heartily and disbelievingly assented, Peter called out, "JUBAL!"
Jubal arrested his arm in mid-swing, looked up, his eyes saying "guilty", and he was convicted in fear. Then Peter, instantly sensing acknowledgement from Jubal of his dramatizations, called surprisingly as he gestured, "Come here and give me a hug, I haven't had one from you in a long time."
Jubal's eyes melted from fear into gratitude and he rushed into Peter's embrace. Peter had every right to discipline him for his behavior, but he didn't. Instead, Peter invited him directly back into the intimacy which forms the very substance of community.
After the bear hug, Peter looked right in Jubal's eyes and inquired, "You having fun?" What Peter was really saying was, "Why are you being mean? Wouldn't it be smarter to play happily and not get into constant trouble?"
Jubal's eyes told the adults that he understood the subscript and he was grateful for the gracious reproach to community. He nodded yes. His "yes" spoke volumes.
Peter said, "That's good, it's a great day for having fun. It's beautiful out, and you can breathe in all the feeling of the mystery and beauty we can see, and share it with your friends. Right?" Peter was obviously leading Jubal into a deeper responsibility and feeling connection and Jubal responded with a deepening breath and a knowing smile.
"So go on back to your friends, and let me see some sharing of this good feeling in some happy play ... and apologize to Donya, will you? OK, have fun. See you."
That day I was given a key that has always unlocked the closed doors in children I have known.