Julie Leoni, emotional literacy coordinator at The Marches School, explores how we help young people to understand the difference between aggressive power and positive power

Is there a book out there that would tell me whether it was normal for my four-year-old son to come home from school and tell me that he, Tom and Katy were showing each other their willies at lunch time? Is it normal for him to feel jealous when his pretty cousin goes out with her boyfriend instead of playing with him? And is it normal for him to want to run and jump and push and bash and fall and slide and hit and crash?

Wanting to be strong

Matty spends a lot of time wanting to be strong. Psychotherapists see the urge to ‘be strong’ as possibly an indication that people feel that they cannot express their feelings, cannot ask for help, cannot show vulnerability. I don’t want Matty to grow up feeling that he can’t do those things. At the moment, he sees strength as purely physical. When he came out of a drum class, the first thing he said was that he could hit them really hard! He’s also dead proud that he can wrestle his dad to the floor. I find all that noise and activity uncomfortable. In my heart, I would like them to stop. But then I look at Fred, the son of a friend, who is so timid that, if I were his mum, I would be worrying about how he would survive in the world.

Covering up

My research on the emotions that lead to students being excluded showed that a lot of boys, when they show anger, are actually covering up another feeling. Sure enough, after a big blow up, my husband comes home having worked out that actually he is feeling scared and sad. Matty too, I suspect, is acting out those feelings, partly in response to Dad and partly because he just started school and has a relatively new baby brother. So already Matty does temper rather than tears. One teatime he even said that he’d hurt himself at school, but hadn’t cried. Both Dad and I said that it was OK to cry – but I’m not sure if he has ever seen his dad cry.

I told him the story about the nasty bully called Hitler who seemed to be strong but needed a big army to hide behind and who, in the end, created nothing more than death and destruction rather than a brave new world.

And I told him the story about Gandhi, a man in India who wanted to change things in his country so they were better for his people. I explained how he refused to use violence but used his brain, his words and his prayer to change things and how sometimes simply walking with people who share your beliefs can be powerful. I also told him about how Mother Teresa wanted to make things better for the poor people where she lived, and how sad she felt when she saw that some people had everything and other people had nothing. Instead of complaining or being angry she decided to do what she could to make a change and because she did what she could, soon other people wanted to help her and now, even after her death, her good work carries on.

Making a difference
Whether or not telling Matty these stories will make a difference depends on how he sees other adults behave. Most of what children learn about emotional literacy they learn from how we are. If we, as teachers, use power to bully, that’s what the children are likely to pick up. But we can also use power to:

  • protect young people physically and emotionally
  • give permission for them to listen to their inner voice and experiment with new ways of being
  • enable them to work their own path.

I like that way of thinking about power, but I also think there is a bit missing: the power of love, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, being humble. The bigger the love, the bigger the power. There is a Buddhist meditation on ‘loving kindness’; Sufism focuses most of its meditations on the heart; Jesus taught that God is love. So why don’t we listen? The answer is fear. We are afraid that we’ll be made to look silly; be taken for a ride; hurt; lose something. Fear that we’ll be left out, left behind, left alone. So, as parents, friends and teachers, we need to love our children. Love them in a way that gets alongside people in their pain and their fear, and walks with them.

The oak and the reed
The story of the oak and the reed is nagging to be told. How the big oak was proud of its size and his strength, proud that he could support so much life and offer so much shade, proud that he had lived so long and knew so much. The reed by the river was small in comparison and weak, and could only live as part of the bed of reeds. And yet, when the winds, storms and floods came, it was the reed who remained. And the moral of the story is that we all need to be flexible like the reed. And then there’s the deeper moral that the oak was not destroyed, just drastically changed; for out of his roots, grew new life and actually we all need to be oaks and reeds at different times of our lives. Sometimes we have to stand firm, sometimes we will be felled and changed, and sometimes we will just bend with the breeze… and always with love.