Social Contracts

A couple of weeks ago I was at a different community centre filling in (I work doing before and after school care for children K-6).
This centre was almost entirely aged 5-6, with only one child being 8. Admittedly, I am much better with older kids, so this was a nice challenge for me, especially not knowing what to expect.
These kids really floored me more than once, but here was the best thing that happened that day:

Little Amy budges in front of little Molly in line.
Molly: “Hey, you budged, and you shouldn’t do that. It makes me feel upset and disrespected!”
Amy: “I’m sorry I didn’t meant to, but I really want to be here”
Now little Sonya, In front of the two of them says: “Hey, why don’t you both go in front of me, I don’t want you to fight because we are all friends.”

I almost cried. I walk up to the girls (whose names I changed for privacy) and said:
“You know kids I am so proud of you. You all handled that situation perfectly. You used your words, said how you felt, did it without having a rude tone, and even Sonya, who had nothing to do with it, offered a solution. Even my older kids at my centre don’t know how to do that. In fact, adults I know don’t know how to do that! You are all awesome!”
I then proceeded to high five them and they forgot what they were arguing about in the first place.

How many of you can say you’ve ever seen adults behave as perfectly as those kids did? Heck, forget other adults, how about you? Have you ever behaved like this? Or do you do what most people do in this situation? Be passive aggressive? Make rude comments? Pick a fight? Bottle up anger and take it out on someone else later? Seems a little odd doesn’t it?

What happened? Clearly, we all went to kindergarten. We all learned the same things: Share, be fair, use your words, etc. But it seems all too quickly we just reject what we learn and master in those early years.

Well the answer is pretty simple actually. As time goes on, kids become better and better at absorbing the world around them. We grow up and mimic the adults we know. We see their apathy, their cynicism, their rudeness, their unhappiness, their entitlement, their whining, all of it – then we become them. Then we have kids, teach our kids to share, be fair, use your words etc, and wonder what the heck happened as they become older and more rebellious and refuse to have a decent discourse.

What’s the point in teaching these young kids those rules? Those basic rules on how to treat people, do we truly mean them? Do we truly want a society where people are treated fairly? What if everyone treated each other like we did in kindergarten?

Authors like Robert Fulghum have written more eloquently on this subject than I ever could, but I am here to share something that has helped me in life to be more childlike, but still be fair, safe, and not lose my curiosity or passion for life.

In every centre in the organization I work for, the staff and kids get together at the start of the year and make something together.
They sit down and it goes something like this:

“Hey kids, today we are going to make up a list of rules. Nah, you know what I don’t really like that word rules…it’s more just how we all want to feel and act together in this center. I am going to write down all your ideas. We all have to agree on them otherwise it doesn’t make it on the list”

Maybe then young Arthur says “Respect others”.

“Fantastic Arthur, I am going to write that down.”

Then Andrea says “No yelling”.

“Hey, great suggestion. Do you mind if I reword that as ‘Use your inside voice’? You see, I want this list to be a list of things we CAN do, not things we CAN’T do. I want this list to give us solutions.”

Andrea nods.

We continue in this fashion. Then young Biff says, laughing “Free Candy everyday”.

“Sure Biff, I will write it down. But I just want you to know that I don’t agree with that because I know that your parents wouldn’t and also because we can’t afford that here. If you want I will leave it up, but the sooner we finish, the sooner we can put this up and have some play time.”

Soon most of the kids will either withdraw the silly suggestions just to move on and then we can do just that – move on.

We continue in this fashion until we have a list. All the kids and staff then proceed to sign it. From here on in, anyone who is staying at our centre reads this list, and signs it as well, or they cannot participate.

What we just made here was a social contract. The word social meaning how we interact with others, and contract meaning something we all agree to follow.

I firmly believe social contracts belong everywhere. In schools, in community centres, and in homes, because there are kids there of course. But I think we need them more than ever in the adult world. At work. In the lineup for the grocery store. In the house of commons. Everywhere. And each one should be made in this exact same fashion.

The beautiful thing about a social contract is that it adds a common language that everyone helps create which we can now use to communicate what really matters with one and other.

Read that one again.

It’s important that the language is common. This will ensure that everyone understands what everything on the contract means.
It’s so important that each and every person helps create it. This gives them a sense of ownership rather than being told what to do.
It’s extremely important that we can use this contract to communicate without judgment or ego anymore.

Milan Kundera wrote in “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” that there is a difference between what a word’s definition is and what a word means. The meaning of a word is different from a definition because it is something we create, more often than not subconsciously. And indeed, as he so eloquently puts it, every word has a flood of meaning that comes rushing at us when we say or hear them. This flood causes us to feel a myriad of emotional responses, more often than not having to do with our insecure ego or deflective judgments.

When we all take the time to make a list of rules we can all agree on to live together peacefully, we are creating that flood of meaning together, which helps prevent a lot of defensive reactions and can save us lots of time.

My friend, Bruce Stewart, recently shared his apathy of meetings in a Facebook post. We all feel that tedium of being stuck there wasting time while someone tells us what to do and how to do it without any regard for respect or decency.

The most important place a social contract can exist is in a board room where a meeting is happening.

Just imagine at your next work meeting a social contract on the wall that says amongst many things “Only provide problems if we discuss solutions as well”. Your boss is going on and on about how productivity is down or some other such office execu-speak, without providing any real discussion or solution. You are all immediately able to point to that social contract and say “I thought we all agreed to follow that? I feel frustrated right now because I would like to discuss solutions and we aren’t doing that.”

It doesn’t have to be done in a judgmental fashion, and in fact shouldn’t be. The social contract just allows us to live more peacefully together, but our tone with others matters. Heck, write down “Use a positive, non-judgmental tone” on it.

Social contracts very well should be the foundation of any relationship. I can’t think of a single situation where remembering my social contract at work hasn’t helped me deal with a situation in the adult world more amicably and maturely. Most of the time, when I think about any tension or frustration I have experienced, I can remember the social contract and it tells me what I can do differently next time to avoid it.

You know what, forget other people for now. I challenge each and every one of you right now to write your own social contract.
Just ask yourself one question: “How do I want to treat others and myself?” Then start writing down ways that you CAN do that. Read it over to yourself when you’re done. Then sign it. Fold it up and put it in your purse, wallet, bag, or pocket. Whenever you have a problem with something in life, pull it out. I guarantee the answer will be on that contract.

If you need help writing it, talk to a 5 or 6 year old child. They are experts at it and can help you more than any adult ever could.

I am very grateful to have a job where I am reminded everyday how to treat people better. The social contract has completely changed my life, and made me a better man. Younger in heart and spirit while honing my wisdom and maturity. I know they will always play a role in my life, and I prefer it that way.


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