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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Resolutions for 2013

Stop.

Please, just stop.
Stop doing what you are doing. Take a deep breath. Look at your life and ask yourself a question:

No, not “Am I happy?”

But rather, “Are my values being met?”

In every environment, relationship, culture, or aspect of your life, ask this question. If you can’t answer it, then maybe ask first, in each construct:

“What are my values?”

I will tell you a secret, lean in close.

Happiness is not constant.

“What?” you might say, since of course, the goal of life is to BE happy, is it not?

WRONG.

There is no state of being in this universe that does not change, and happiness is no exception. Too bad, sorry to burst your bubble.

Life can be up, and life can be down. But if what we value in life is being met, then happiness can follow a lot of the time. More importantly however, balance, peace, and calm will follow.

Our values are our currency. We expect them back from people in all our relationships, and others expect their own back in return (whether we are aware of this exchange or not does not stop it from being true). When people take what they need without giving back, we feel violated, taken advantage of. When we take what we need without giving back, we are violating and taking advantage.
It really is that simple.

So discover your currency. Define it clearly at work, in friendships, in love, everywhere.
You will find that money probably isn’t even on your list, and if it is, how it’s not the most important.

Yet when you see the word currency, it always has monetary definition. So change that word, and define it for yourself beyond the marketplace. Find the values that make up your currency in life.

Then if you notice there is no equivalency in your economy, the solution is simple.

Start with yourself and change your life until there is.

Gathering Magic

Today I had a great day. Some friends and kids I know from my time at the community center all came over to my house and we played a game. A game called Magic: The Gathering. This game and I have a long history, and it is always writing itself.

When I first started grade seven, I was in a new school where I knew no one. I’ve never had a problem talking to people, but like any kid, I was nervous and didn’t know if I would make friends.
It wasn’t until a group of kids in my class introduced me to a card game that I really got my solid circle of friends.

Magic: The Gathering is probably a game most people haven’t heard of. But simultaneously, millions of people, most of them kids, play it all over the world. It’s a collectible card game where you pit your cards against a friend’s in a game to see who will win. It’s a very simple concept, but full of so much more complexity beneath the surface. At first glance most adults, especially parents don’t understand the fervor with which their children play it. Many adults in fact, would go as far as to not allow their kids to play it. They focus only on the perspectives which they choose to see –
“It’s a money sink”
“It’s too competitive”
“The artwork is too graphic” (I find your average episode of Jersey Shore more graphic by tenfold)

They are quick to dismiss it because they don’t understand it. Of course, the old adage is true, and they fear what they do not understand.

Here is another perspective.

Magic is a game that taught a nervous boy in grade seven how to find something in common with other people. How to be patient and learn to be taught something new. How to put my addictive personality towards something constructive. How to learn to interact with other people. It has taught me these things and many, many other things.

It’s a wondrous game filled with art, fantasy, role playing, escape, strategy, math, personality…With the wonderful element of real, face to face, human interaction involved. This last note is increasingly important as most kids today, especially young boys, find that same escapism in a virtual, online, gaming world. That person to person reality can help even the most socially awkward of us to get better at communicating with each other.

But my story is hardly the most inspiring as to what this game can do. The last job I had (at that community center) had a large community of children that play that game. In fact many of whom only come because its a place where they can play with their friends. More so, There are kids there that I wholeheartedly believe may have gotten into a lot of trouble if this game hadn’t found them – nay – if that community of players hadn’t embraced them as I was so many years ago.

It has deeply, deeply, saddened me to learn that this year, that same community center has decided to ban magic from it’s summer camps.
It would be one thing if a couple of parents decide that this game is not for their kids – that’s their right, they can raise their kids how they see fit.
It is my understanding that a couple of parents complained – so the whole camp is now not allowed to partake in it. I also know how this works. Pretty soon, it will be banned altogether. I only say this because I have witnessed similar policies slowly creep their way into this place in a similar fashion.

Additionally, attempts to reason these positive aspects to provide perspective to this knee-jerk decision have been futile and frustrating.

As I deal more and more with internal politics, bureaucracy, and policy makers, I am finding myself becoming more and more angry, frustrated, saddened, and hopeless in our future as a community. I’m seeing more and more already made up minds, closed doors, and walls, where once there was an actual discussion taking place. This is the worst kind of policy making – the kind where you like it or lump it. No amount of discussion will ever be had or encouraged or met with anything but defensiveness.

Why must we throw the baby out with the bathwater?
Why must we completely ignore the fact that we are losing so much by ignorantly just cutting off all access to this from kids who can really benefit from it?
A couple of parents get in a huff and puff and because we don’t want to deal with their confrontation, we just decide it’s easier to give up on a great thing altogether.
But the hypocrisy is staggering.
Perhaps I should come in and complain that I don’t like the kids using their Wii because the songs in Rock Band are too taboo.
Or how about I don’t think it’s appropriate for kids to be in swimsuits in front of adults so we ban all water based activities?
Or no more manicure days because Cosmo magazine shouldn’t be read by the girls as it is rotting their minds?
Shall I keep going?

If we trashed every idea because one or two people didn’t like it, we wouldn’t have much to offer each other.

I do not write this because I believe it will actually inspire some change to this decision or even some more thought on it. I write it because it is in my bones to do so. If I don’t write out this frustration it will fester in me. Why?

Because, something I love, that is dear to me, and so meaningful, is being attacked for the flimsiest of reasons!

Worse still, real kids suffer because of it. But it’s the silent kind of suffering, the out of sight out of mind kind, where a few years from now those kids that didn’t have such an amazing distraction start lashing out against the same community that took that escape away from them. Where would I be if I hadn’t had friends that taught me this game back then? Something tells me I would have found vices much more damaging to me – I certainly had enough reasons growing up to need distractions.

Clearly, there is a need for this game there. I filled my house with that need today.

So, are you listening? Are you actually hearing what is happening?

Your community is speaking, if you will listen, and it is telling you what it wants.

Sometimes we have to stop giving in to external pressure and start paying attention to the internal reality. Doing the right thing takes courage. Doing what’s best for the kids, instead of pleasing our egos.

Because pretty soon, our community centers will become emptier and emptier. The gatherings will happen elsewhere.

We need to start putting our trust not in rules and policies but in the people, the kids, our neighbours and friends.

Otherwise mark my words – soon all these centers will be left with empty rooms and full policy manuals.

I risk many things in speaking so brazenly and openly. I will no doubt receive much backlash.
But one thing I am not is an enabler. One thing I am is a writer.
So I write, and I am prepared to accept any and all reactions. I stand by my words and offer no apologies.

I do hope this inspires discussion and I hope that discussion opens some minds, opens those closed doors, and breaks down some walls.

Whether it is accepted or not at our center, we will all gather to play magic. The question is whether or not it is done in there.
If it is not, how many kids will we lose in between the cracks in the meantime?

That’s a question that needs to seriously be asked, and honestly be answered, before the magic has gone out all together.