by Craige Christensen, Manager, Building Healthy Relationships program
I agree and ask, “When?”
“Middle school,” she replies.
I nod and say, “How about elementary school?”
As part of the Building Healthy Relationships program at YWCA Evanston/North Shore, our goal is to teach young people how to get along with others and build the skills they need to prevent violence, especially relationship violence, as they mature.
Maybe this sounds too simplistic or unrealistic, but it is how we change the culture: one person at a time.
And, as my student said, it does need to be taught earlier! If we are to be proactive shouldn’t we start as early as possible? We should. And it begins by modeling healthy behaviors. The young people in our lives, even the very youngest, are oh-so-ready to learn.
In our Building Healthy Relationships program, we are working to be increasingly proactive to reach children at younger ages. We work with children as young as kindergarten. Also, we continue to expand into parent groups, so they understand the social and emotional development of their children.
We know that children are deeply receptive to both healthy and traumatic experiences. These can have lasting effects on them.
For example, when our oldest child started talking, she began speaking of things she saw, heard, and experienced months earlier, before she was talking. And she had reactions as she told the stories.
Also, when I was a college student, I watched a video of a racist hate group meeting that included young children accompanying their parents. Whether the adults in that meeting knew it or not, their children were absorbing and processing – they were being taught hate. I still think about those children and what they are doing now.
So, what do we teach young students so they can be healthy themselves and have productive relationships?
- We teach empathy.
- We help them recognize what they are feeling and that feelings are just that: feelings. No right or wrong, no good or bad. It is behavior that matters.
- We talk about recognizing similarities and differences they have with others, and accepting, maybe even celebrating, both.
- We emphasize boundaries. We can ask for a hug and if they say no, we don’t hug.
- We offer them skills to help manage feelings that are strong or uncomfortable so they can step back and maybe change their reaction.
- We stress the value of taking responsibility and finding the strength to apologize, if necessary, and make the situation better.
- We teach and model how to take a breath before acting and we say that being right is not the most important thing in a relationship.
None of this sounds easy, right? But it is possible, and we are working with children in this way targeted way because it makes a difference. It works. And this is how we change the culture one person at a time.