Lessons from the Playground and Piano Bench

I sometimes forget I have a degree in piano since I only used it about three years before abandoning it; yet, certain things I learned have followed me….let’s just say, a very long time. Imagine my surprise when, during my first piano lesson at college, I was told I had practiced incorrectly for thirteen years. What a waste of a perfectly good childhood! I could have used that time to learn something.

Apparently, the correct way is to practice as slowly as necessary in order to get the entire piece of music 100% right the first time. Once comfortable with that, I was free to increase speed as much as I thought I could and still be error-free until I could play at the correct tempo. What an epiphany!  I could get through four years of college and never make a mistake! That was right up my alley; I didn’t like making those. They interfered with my learning.

I decided it could work for math, too, so in calculus, I worked as slowly as was needed in order to get each problem right. I re-worked and picked up speed until I could fly through them. (Interesting choice of words, by the way, isn’t it? Math.Problem. Yessireee!) There were only two A’s that semester, and I was one of them.  I credit my piano teacher for that A. I didn’t even have the courage to take trigonometry in high school – anything with that many syllables had to be hard, and I didn’t like taking on hard things. I might make mistakes and lower my GPA (and everybody knows GPA shows how smart you are).

It also worked in teaching spelling to fifth-graders. We added rhythm sticks and practiced our words out loud using our own made-up rhythms (Theirs were much better than mine), starting slowly and picking up speed. I had great spellers, and those who weren’t were drowned out by the racket of rhythm sticks. It was fun! I liked fun things.

If only everything we had to learn was easy and fun and no one ever had to make a mistake.

If only I could have said to my class of ten- and eleven-year-olds, “Now, kids, when you go outside at recess, play as slowly as you need to in order to be kind and fair and include everyone. When you can play nicely at that speed, then you may try to play a little faster.” Sadly, some things have to be done the wrong way in order to figure out the right way to do them.

When I was old enough to wrestle with forgiveness, I did it absolutely incorrectly a number of times before someone pointed out that I was the only one suffering. Somehow, it didn’t seem fair in my adolescent mind that the perpetrator of some heinous act against me could go scot-free and leave me, the poor maligned victim, responsible for making things right in my world again. Nope. Forgiveness took too much work, that elementary-aged criminal didn’t deserve such magnanimous treatment from me, and being mad was easy.  So I stayed mad.

Turns out, staying mad is a lot of hard work.  Playing the victim is, too.  Thank God for my mother who wasn’t afraid of hard work. When I was ready to listen, she was ready to begin the business of helping me sort through my playground drama. I didn’t want to believe that assigning the importance of someone else’s behavior toward me was my decision. She insisted it was. I wanted someone to make that girl be nice to me and about me; I wanted her to take it back; I wanted her punished! My mother was adamant that the girl’s behavior itself was self-inflicted punishment. I couldn’t see that at the time.

I really, really resisted the notion that I set myself up for such treatment. No matter how much I didn’t want to believe it, though, it was true. I was guilty of such meanness myself and thereby opened the door to be treated in like fashion. Coming to terms with that one was particularly tough, but it was, without a doubt, the catalyst that changed my own behaviors as well as how I framed the behaviors of others.

I had to experience meanness from both sides of the fence to truly understand its impact. An anti-bullying program would not have helped me because, prior to being on the receiving end of it, I would not have recognized myself as a bully. I was a star student in the gifted program, a certified pink-bow-teacher-pleaser, a patrol guard, for pity’s sake! How could that spell bully?!!? But I was. I had dished it out, and I didn’t like how it felt to take it. The point is, it was the not-liking-how-it-felt part that caused me to recognize my own role in the bullying cycle, and it’s what made me change.  I wasn’t a terrible person then, nor was the person whose name I don’t even remember who gave me some of my own right back in my face. We were kids playing outside and learning about life – how to do things and how not to do them.

School has started and playgrounds are open for business. Bullying will live on despite mandates to the contrary. I believe this because my mom told me there were mean girls on her playground, and her mom told her the same was true back in her day. The truth is, in thirty-two years of public education, I never met a kid who wasn’t mean on the playground at some point, and for every one of those, there was a kid on the receiving end who didn’t like how it felt.

I would like to see bullying approached in the same manner as potty training. Parents and day care providers can talk it up until they’re blue in the face, but until a little guy is ready, it’s all theory to him and no measurable progress. The hard work begins when the light goes on and the kid says, “Oh! They’re talking about me!” and he grabs his cotton-clad bottom and wails, “POO-POO!”   Signal sent, adults scramble to his aid, ready to help him through this dirty business, and thus marks the beginning of the end of diaper days.

I’m calling on every mom, dad, grandparent, every adult who touches a kid’s life in the course of a day to make note: bullying, like potty training, is solved one child at a time, and it’s the one who cries “Bully!” who is most ready to listen. Talk to that one!  Help him understand  that others’ behaviors are not about him and their words cannot wreck his world without his permission. Show him how to make things right there again and how to keep them right. Be adamant that his behaviors are ALL about him and the other kid’s behaviors are all about the other kid. He must recognize his role in the cycle. Expect resistance. Persist. When he gets it, celebrate the end of the mean-kid phase for that one child.

Some things are easy and fun to learn and can be done without outside help. Others require lots of work from lots of busy adults and resistant kids. Heartache, hurt feelings, and being wrong are inevitable but provide the most fertile ground for life lessons to grow. Seize the opportunity to breathe your child through the moment, and help him come through the experience with a better understanding of himself and others.

Babies poop in their diapers; that doesn’t make them bad. When they realize they don’t like how it feels, they learn to stop. Kids are mean to each other – even good ones and those in gifted programs – but when they realize they don’t like how it feels, they learn to stop.  With coaching from adults at each stage, most grow up to be potty-trained, non-bullying, productive adults.

Some even grow up to become counselors.


I value your thoughts and comments. Please share them!! ~Donna

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