e.e. cummings: “i’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than to teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.”
At our first meeting of the leadership team in 2007 the Native youth ask a question. “How do we make the younger kids do what we want?”
Hanging my head for a quick moment I quietly say, “We don’t. We encourage them.”
We turn to an old exercise that I learned under Michael Grinder, a trainer in Classroom Management.
“Everyone write down three qualities you want the younger kids to have,” I say.
Everyone picks their top item and we go around the room listing them. “I want them to be responsible and pick up after themselves.” “I want them to not be afraid to speak up for themselves.” “I want them to have their own opinions.” “I want them to tolerate those who are different.” I want them to be kind.” I want them to be respectful to people and to the stuff we have.”
“Okay,” I say. “Whenever any of the younger kids show the quality you pick, you tell him or her something that is encouraging, like ‘cool,’ or ‘way to go’ or a thumbs up.” So if someone gives their own opinion or is respectful, you compliment him or her immediately. What usually happens is that the youth see what you value and will begin to do that more. You don’t tell them what you value. You compliment the one who shows it and point out how it is a good thing.”
A teen says “This isn’t going to work.”
In about an hour the youth started reporting to me how someone had embodied the quality they had picked.
I began to hear exclamations all over the room, “That’s tight.” “Good for you.” “Cool, Dude.” “Keep it up.”
As we evaluated the day, one young man says, “I can’t believe how much happier they seemed today. I didn’t believe that complimenting them could change them so much. I think this is going to work. Can we have more than one quality we can compliment?”
“The way it works,” I say, “is that you focus on one quality at a time so you are not just cheering about everything and it becomes ordinary. Also you want to encourage them to grow in their journey and that takes focus and time. We can add a new quality every five days we work with them. Encouragement is a deep and long process.”
This is a holy practice. It is an activity we can do that brings us closer to reaching the holy in others. It is a discipline. You have to not only know what you want to grow in another; you have to pay attention to when they embody it.