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This teaching story is from The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
At Kidpower, we have many tools for taking the power out of hurting words.
In a kindergarten classroom workshop, a five-year-old boy I’ll call “Craig” did not want to do the Trash Can practice, where students take words that hurt them and pretend to throw the words into a real or imaginary trash can instead of taking these words to heart.
Up until the name-calling part of the workshop, Craig had been enthusiastic. While the other kids were busy practicing with adult volunteers and teachers leading their teams, I took Craig aside, and we sat next to each other on the floor.
“Some mean words won’t fit into your trash can,” I told Craig, and then asked in a very matter-of-fact voice, “Is someone calling you names?”
“My big brothers call me ‘crybaby’ every single day!” Craig said, with an expressionless look on his little face.
“Oh, my!” I said. “That sounds upsetting! Can you think of a place besides the trash can to throw away the word ‘crybaby’?”
“I want to throw it into my brother’s mouth and sew his mouth shut!” Craig said firmly.
“Can you think of another place to throw this hurting word that is not attached to a person?”
“Well, I could cut off someone’s butt and throw the word in there!” Craig looked as if this idea really appealed to him.
“It sounds to me as if you are really mad at your brothers!” I said sympathetically, reflecting that the teasing in Craig’s home must have gotten pretty intense.
“Yes!” Craig muttered, glowering balefully.
“The problem with throwing mean words into someone else is that the meanness grows and gets bigger,” I explained. “So can you think of something to do with the word ‘crybaby’ that will not go into any part of someone else, either attached or unattached?”
Craig thought for a few seconds while I waited quietly. “Maybe,” he said. “I could shrink it and melt it away in some very hot sand!”
“This sounds like a very good plan!” I told him.
Later, in the whole group, without focusing on Craig, I explained to everyone. “Usually, the Kidpower Trash Can technique works but not always. If one thing doesn’t work, you can always try something else. Sometimes people make fun of you for something that is true. Suppose someone makes fun of me because I have curly hair and says in a nasty voice or with a scrunched up face, ‘Eeeu! Your hair is curly!’”
“Suppose that I answer, ‘My hair is not curly. My hair is straight!’? No one will believe me because my hair is curly. I can throw away the hurtful way they are talking about my hair into my trash can and say to myself, ‘I like my curly hair!’
“If that doesn’t work, I can think about what they are actually saying when they make fun of my hair, which is that there is something wrong with me because my hair is curly. After listening to people make fun of my curly hair, I might even start to say to myself, ‘I am ugly because my hair is curly!’ Feeling badly about how you look is not safe. So, instead, I can decide that that’s not true.”
I then coached the class, “Let’s all make a fence with our hands. Put your arms in front of you like this and push your hands away from you, like a fence. Now say, ‘That’s not true!’”
They did, and I explained, “What we are saying ‘that’s not true’ to is not my curly hair, because that IS true, but to the mean way someone talks about it. Let’s try out this idea with some other examples. Suppose a friend tells you in an upset voice, ‘You are being a bad friend!’ but what they are actually saying is, ‘You are a bad friend because you want to play a different game than I do!’ Make your fence and say, ‘That’s not true!’”
They did and I continued, “What you are saying ‘that’s not true’ to is that you are a bad friend.” Picking another example, I said, “If someone calls you, “dummy,” what they actually are saying might be, ‘You are dumb because you made a mistake!’ And what do you say?”
Everyone stretched out their fences and said, “That’s not true.”
“What about ‘You are a bad person because I am mad at you,’” I ask.
Again, everyone, adults and kids said, “That’s not true!”
I reminded the class that having somebody mad at you might be true, but that it is not true that you are a bad person just because someone else is mad at you.
Having established the idea, I continued, “Sometimes people make fun of us because we cry. Who here has ever been called a ‘crybaby’?” As we all, along with Craig, looked around the room, almost everybody, including the adults, raised their hands.
I asked, “Did being called a crybaby hurt your feelings?” We all nodded, and I continued, “What it means if someone calls you a crybaby is that you are a baby if you cry, and that’s not true!”
To give more information, I added a leading question, “What are tears made of?” I paused so the children could call out answers. “Water,” they said, “and salt.”
“Yes,” I continued, “and tears also are made of the chemicals that come into our bodies when we have upset feelings. Tears are a way of washing the upset feelings out of our bodies.”
The class of five-year-olds was extremely interested and their parents and teachers were riveted, so I kept going, deliberately picking a story that had an older boy in it to reinforce the idea that even big boys cry. “Last year, I had a class with kids older than you. There was a boy we’ll call Jim who was having a hard day and crying. Jim was embarrassed about crying and that made him cry harder. Has that ever happened to you?”
Most hands, including Craig’s, were raised. “Anyway,” I continued, “After I explained about tears and how crying helps our bodies be safe by getting rid of upset feelings, one of Jim’s friends asked, ‘Does that mean that when Jim cries, he is doing Kidpower?’ Of course, Jim’s friend was right because Kidpower helps keep you safe and so can crying.”
I smiled at my students and said, “If someone says, ‘You are a baby because you cry’ or calls you ‘crybaby’ for short, then even if you are crying, what do you say?”
Everyone made a fence with their hands and shouted, “That’s not true!”
Because written words have extra power, we then wrote the word “Crybaby” on a big piece of paper and made a drawing of a crying face. I held up the sign and the kids immediately read or at least guessed the word. We passed the sign around and each person tore it part of the way. Finally, we all cheered while Craig crumpled the tattered pieces of the word Crybaby and threw them into the real recycling bin nearby.
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Published: June 16, 2016 | Last Updated: February 26, 2021
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