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When It Always Has to be Your Way, No One Wants to Play: Using Proverbs to Teach Children

As any parent, educator or child counselor can tell you, children enjoy short, catchy and true phrases. However, in the heat of an emotional moment, it is hard to retrieve what we want to say. So, we often “do” before thinking.   

In addition to learning academics at school these days, children are taught relationship skills, which are known as “social-emotional learning or SEL.” New research reveals that self-control is a better predictor of success than intelligence.

We need to acquire SEL skills to be successful adults. These skills include:

  • Developing self-control by learning to manage emotions
  • Feeling empathy for self and others
  • Having positive relationships
  • Making responsible decisions
  • Setting and achieving positive goals.

pexels-photoRecently, I met with a colleague to provide consultation for implementation of a social-emotional program (SEL) called, Kimochis®, in an after-school program. One Kimochis® tool is called a “kotowaza,” a Japanese word meaning proverb or wise saying. Proverbs are universal across cultures, providing a truth or wisdom.  

The Kimochis® Kotowaza for the emotion mad is, “It’s okay to be mad, but it is not okay to be mean.” Memorize this phrase. It can be used to coach a child during a difficult moment when anger is coming out aggressively. This type of proverb validates the child’s feeling, sets a limit and gives a behavior expectation in a non-shaming way.

Importantly, this communication tool can be taught to children to use when responding to peers in social situations, such as on the playground. Other tools in the Kimochis® curriculum teach how to regulate tone of voice and body language, in order to communicate helpful words, instead of hurtful words, in challenging social situations.

The intention of using a proverb or “kotowaza” is to respond without causing embarrassment or shame to the child. Children can be sensitive to correction, so finding a way to generalize something with a proverb can help move everyone forward. The proverb needs to be an encouraging reminder, which helps to teach sharing, instead of scolding when sharing is not being practiced.

My colleague posed a question about how to address to a child who dominates play, insisting that play always follow the child’s way. Modeling the approach of the Kimochis® program, I suggested that we invent a proverb. After brainstorming, we agreed on this proverb: “When it always has to be your way, no one wants to play.” 

Before using a new phrase, teach it to the children.  A teacher, as well as a parent or caregiver, can do this. Set up a time to rehearse a new proverb with children. Explain what it means. Role-play it. Tell the children that you will say this proverb when you see sharing is not happening. Brainstorm and role-play what the children can do or say when they hear the proverb used. For example, an effective response may be teaching kids to say, “Oops, sorry, we will share.” To figure out a fair way to problem-solve taking turns, former students liked to use “Rock, Paper, Scissors / Ro, Sham, Bo.”

When you do see a situation warranting intervention, coach by using your proverb! This strategy usually provides a more positive result rather than saying something like, “You need to share,” or “Stop doing that,” or “Why can’t you get along?”

This tool can also be used for older children. I run a girls group for adolescents. We had a conversation about how when someone says something hurtful, an impulse is to say it right back! The girls came up with the proverb: When you feel like doing “tit for tat,” stop and think; you can be better than that. This group ran for three years, and this phrase stuck like glue.   The girls took a lot of pride in inventing the proverb, saying it helped them walk away or ignore someone’s teasing.

When coaching children, we need to have the mindset of teaching and re-teaching. A catchy phrase is easy to retrieve and can be effective in a messy moment. So, whether you borrow or make-up your own proverb to support a messy situation or emotional moment, prepare by memorizing a few to add to your “coaching” toolbox to support children. Have fun!

Maryellen Mullin

Maryellen Mullin

Maryellen P. Mullin is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC45966) in San Francisco and runs Messy Parenting: providing workshops, strategies and methods for those who bravely parent to make family life less muddled and more joy-filled!

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