by Chick Moorman
"Grandpa, I have a note from school. I'm supposed to give it to you."
That's how Austin, age ten and in fifth grade, chose to begin the process of explaining his fight at school. I had been alerted to the situation earlier in the day by the building principal who called to give me the details. The letter was not unexpected.
"What does it say?" I queried.
"It says I got in a fight at school."
"You got in a fight? I'm really surprised to hear that. Tell me about it."
"Grandpa, I just get fighting mad. They tease me all the time. They say I talk funny because I'm from Texas."
"So you chose to slug someone."
"Grandpa, it's not like that. I didn't choose to slug him. I couldn't help myself. He kept bugging me. He made me fighting mad."
"And that's when the fight started?"
"You hit him?"
The problem here is not that Austin got in a fight. It is that he is not seeing himself as response-able. He does not realize he has several alternatives from which to choose. He is making an automatic response to this situation without considering alternatives and without thinking through potential consequences.
Children who make automatic responses are at the mercy of their environment. It is the event, the circumstance, the situation that controls their response. They have no sense of personal power. Until they see themselves as response-able they will keep making the same ineffective response.
In this situation the parent/teacher's job is to help the child see himself as response-able. The adult's effort should be to increase the child's response-ability, that is, their ability to see and make responses that work.
"So what else does the letter say?" I asked.
"It tells that I got in a fight and that I can't go to school for two days."
"If I do it again I get kicked out for a week."
"What are the chances of that happening?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you think you'll be choosing to fight again any time soon?"
"Grandpa, I told you it wasn't a choice. They made me fighting mad. That's just how I get when they call me names and tease me. It makes me fighting mad."
"How about getting spitting mad instead?"
"Why not just get spitting mad?"
"What are you talking about?"
"You know how to spit don't you?"
"Yeah, but what does that have to do with anything?"
"Come on outside. I'll show you."
Outside on the grass I gave Austin spitting lessons. One of the important roles of grandfathers is to give their grandchildren spitting lessons. Where else are they going to learn important concepts like spitting if not from a grandparent?
"Now that I know you can spit real good, here's what I'd like you to do. Next time one of those kids starts teasing you, turn immediately and walk five steps away. Count them out...one, two, three, four, five...like I just did. Then turn and face them and say, 'When you call me names like that it makes me spitting mad.' Then spit a real big, good one into the grass. Then say, 'See how spitting mad that makes me.' Then walk away."
"Grandpa, I can't do that."
"Sure you can."
"It wouldn't work, anyway."
"How about trying it once?"
"You don't understand. They make fun of me because I'm from Texas. They call me names and say I talk funny."
"You can't control what they do. You can only control what you do. Why not get spitting mad the next time it happens?"
"I can't do that."
"Sure you can. Come on let's practice. I'll call you some names and you get spitting mad and let's see how it goes."
"Grandpa, this is stupid."
"You're probably right. It is kind of stupid. In fact it's so stupid it might just work. Let's give it a shot."
"I'll be a kid at school and you see if you can remember to get spitting mad."
"Austin, you talk funny. Can't you speak English like the rest of us? And you're bowl legged, too. You walk funny. You get that from riding horses or are your legs just shaped funny? Can't walk or talk right, can you?"
At his point Austin spun around and walked away. After five steps he turned back and faced me. "When you do that I get spitting mad," He said. Then he deposited a huge ball of saliva on the grass in front of him. "I am spitting mad right now," he said, "because you're calling me names and I don't like it." He then turned and walked away.
I congratulated Austin for choosing to be spitting mad instead of fighting mad and we continued to practice. After three repetitions I could see that he understood the concept and had internalized the skill. I challenged him to use it the next time a similar situation happened at school.
"Grandpa, this isn't going to work."
"Maybe not. We'll see."
Two weeks later Austin came home from school and shared a related incident.
"Grandpa, I did the spitting mad thing at school today."
"Yeah, and it worked, too!"
"Tell me about it."
"This kid was teasing me on the bus. Bugged me all the way to school about my accent. I didn't think I should spit on the bus so waited till we both got off. Then I did it. I walked five steps away like you said, then I told him, 'I get spitting mad that when you call me names and I don't like it.' Then I spit and just stared at him."
"Then what happened. Did you walk away?"
"He said, 'I didn't know. I'm sorry.'"
"So it turned out pretty well."
"Yeah, I was surprised."
"I'm happy to hear you choose to be spitting mad instead of fighting mad. And I'm happy it worked for you. Congratulations."
This is not the end of the story. It is only the beginning. Austin still needs to learn additional behaviors he can use instead of fighting or spitting. Yet, at this point he is now twice as response-able as he was two weeks ago. He has doubled the available responses at his disposal when peers taunt and tease. Because he no longer makes an automatic response, he now has a greater ability to respond. He is developing response-ability.