I ‘swear’ to be good

Meena Sriram

Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively, using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble. – Yehuda Berg (Former co-director of the Kabbalah Centre, Los Angeles)

Profanity is rampant in classrooms. This is a challenge that schools face year after year. Have we not been part of staff room discussions about the choice of words by children these days? Who is responsible for this choice of words? Is it the school that teaches them language, or the home that uses language, or the society, or the media? Use of inappropriate language has been a concern for decades now and recent observations show that it is manifesting in younger children as well and not just adolescents. How do we address this problem?

A democratic meet that a team of counsellors and I conducted with a group of students from grades 7 and 8 in a Montessori school in Chennai revealed that children like to:
• Repeat what they listen
• Enact what they observe

Children observe adults and peers around them behaving in a certain way and some among them pick up the courage to emulate what they see and speak the same language. This they come to believe is ‘adult behaviour’! At school, it is representative of senior school behaviour or leader behaviour. It is important to remember that children are always observing people around them and will imitate behaviour that impresses them. When they notice that acts of obscenity, be it in behaviour or in language, actually attracts attention (good or bad, at this point, doesn’t matter to them), they try to check it out for themselves.

Why should profanity be discussed? What does it mean to use irreverent language in school and other places? What triggers the display of obscenity? When do children exhibit unacceptable behaviour?
• When they seek attention
• When they wish to exhibit power
• To win over situations
• To impress peers or people around

The list can go on and on, but we need to understand that it is the sense of incompleteness or existence of some trauma that leads to extreme behaviour in children.

How can this be addressed in schools? Some suggestions:
Class meets
• These are the best moments to bring up challenges associated with profanity. Such meets strengthen the belief systems of the class with respect to communication and shake up the courage of the few who have been delinquent in the past.
• Triggering a discussion at the start of the year assessing the impact of irreverent language will not merely enable children to express their thoughts on the subject but will also keep them thinking along these lines without prejudice.
• Discussions could be held on how to deal with peers when found behaving inappropriately. There could be some ground rules and common understanding.
• Arriving at respectful alternatives could be a fruitful endeavour. When suggestions come from children, they are more likely to use the same than when lectured to.
• Discussions around consequences for adults and children can also be initiated. It will enable understanding of the minds and preferences of expression of thoughts and use of specific vocabulary in children and the reasons for the same.

Staff meetings
• Could be used to discuss how to react to profanity in different situations in the school. Should adults ignore, postpone, react immediately, etc.? What should an adult say to a child in such situations? Should consequences be dealt with and the like could be points of discussion in meetings. The consequences could be based on the thoughts collected from the class meets as well.

Most often we have adults who are ill-prepared for such situations and get caught in the web of expected reactions. Teacher meets could have preparatory activities for adults to gear up and face the children who need help with recovery. Meets could have hypothetical situations dealt with for others to see and comprehend. Meetings could also be about real solutions. What one needs to keep in mind, largely, is that, there is really no one formula that fits all children. So more the discussions, more the suggestions.

What do we tell a child who uses profanity repeatedly?
• An attempt at guiding the child to remain silent may help. Displaying respect and giving attention to the child is very important. The more composed the adult, the more settled the child will be. Remaining calm in all situations is a strength that children must learn. Adults can demonstrate this even during difficult times.
• Noticing and indicating to the child that he/she has indulged in bad behaviour is another way of exhibiting the need for consequence. Allowing the child the opportunity and space to self-correct is also essential, in case discussions with the child have happened earlier.
• Requesting the child to rephrase the sentence or utterance politely or as discussed in class, depending on the age, will support the child to recall the discussion and also practice the use of right behaviour.
• It is to be remembered that children must know that adults also get angry and frustrated, however they articulate their emotion and behave normally.
• Children must understand through the behaviour of the adults that anger, frustration, irritation are all part of adult lives as well. How each one deals with the situation determines how the individual classifies the adult as a self-controlled one.

Children certainly must be explained to about profanity. They must be reminded that there are sufficient ways to rephrase or re-exhibit behaviour. Profanity affects the minds and systems of all those working in the vicinity of the classroom besides the class itself. Profanity thus cannot be a vanity, and irreverence in any form must be made clearly unacceptable.

Kabir Das had stated several decades ago that sweet words alone fill the heart with joy and cool the heart and intellect like the cool breeze of summer.

aisi vani boliye, man ka aapa khoye
auran ko sheetal kare, aaphu sheetal hoye

If a child does not know how to read, we teach
If a child does not know how to swim, we teach
If a child does not how to behave, ….do we punish or teach?

Children must be made capable of strengthening themselves and facing situations in the daily world with sweetness and courage. They must be reminded that hurting and violence need not always be just physical acts. All our communication must be non-violent in thought first and action thereafter!

The author is the academic administrator with the Chinmaya Education Cell and has about 28 years of teaching experience working with all age groups. She can be reached at meenasriram@gmail.com.

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