Book Review: Calm and Compassionate Children

Book review on Calm and Compassionate Children by Susan DermondRead the entire review by Elissa Elliott 

I’ve just finished reading Susan Usha Dermond’s Calm and Compassionate Children, and on the very first page, to set the tone, she quotes Dalai Lama in An Open Heart: “Compassion is of little value if it remains an idea.  It must become our attitude toward others, reflected in all our thoughts and actions.”  So true.  Isn’t that what we want for our children…and for ourselves?

For years, Dermond was a school director at the Living Wisdom School where they attempted “to teach the whole child, not just the intellect; in developing ways to teach children self-control rather than conformity; and in learning how to bring out the best in children–including their calm compassion.”  This book is a culmination of their successes and “failures.”

She divides the book into various components that make up a calm and compassionate child, such things as incorporating celebration and ritual, nature hikes, telling stories, having pets (or taking your children to animals), giving children quiet times, surrounding them with soothing music, allowing them to move and dance, and most of all, being a calm role model for your child.

I’ve chosen a few things to highlight from the book.

Something simple, yet grand, that you can do no matter where you are:  a “micro-hike.”  “As described by Joseph Cornell in Sharing Nature with Children, you give your child a magnifying glass and a piece of string four or five feet long.  You take one, too!  Span your strings ‘over the most interesting ground you can find.’

“Get down on your hands and knees and, keeping your eyes no higher than one foot above the ground, crawl along your string examining everything you can find.  How many kinds of plants are there?  What are the insects doing?  What are the colors like?  Would this hike look the same if it were raining?  At the end of the string share with each other what you discovered, then trade places and take each other’s hikes.  This helps the hurried child slow down as he attempts to discover all the things you saw along your string.”

One idea we’ve already taken to heart is the idea of hanging bird feeders.  We have a couple of them suctioned-cupped to our dining room windows, in addition to the others hanging from trees that Dan and Liliana fill together on a regular basis.  Liliana is smitten with the birds and calls them each by name: bluejay, goldfinch, woodpecker, nuthatch, and of course, the turkeys that she chases away because they’re banging away at their own reflections in our lower level windows.

Noticing is another excellent trait you want to foster.  Dermond explains, “One of my colleague Barbara’s teaching activities is a practice she calls Noticing.  During ‘Sharing’ time first thing each morning, she tells the class about the little joys she’s already noticed that day; for example, a flower blooming by the parking lot, the way the clouds look in the sky, or the smile on someone’s face….

Noticing continues throughout the school day.  When something beautiful occurs, Barbara calls the class’s attention to it: ‘Children, I notice the way the light coming through our window is shining on Shelly’s painting.’  ‘Boys and girls, let’s notice the beautiful sounds the rain is making on the windows.’  ‘I notice that everyone is smiling because they like this story!’

“This attention on uplifting moments helps the children (and the teacher!) be on the lookout for them.  Gradually, the children–even those who used to focus on the negative and complain a lot–begin to be happier and more harmonious with each other.”

I liked the chapter about “Claiming Personal Power.”  The chapter begins with a quote by Eknath Easwaran from Original Goodness: ‘Life will always be full of ups and downs,’ my grandmother used to say.  ‘But you don’t have to go up and down with them.  You can teach your mind to be calm and kind whatever comes.’  In one example Dermond gives, a young girl has to be reprimanded time and time again in her classroom, and when her teacher asks her one more time to please stop talking, the girl says, ‘I just can’t stop talking!’  Then the teacher makes a brilliant observation.  ‘Yes, you canhelp it, Cecilia, because you are a strong, powerful little girl.  And you can use that power to control your talking.  Now I want you to take your work to the quiet area and think about that.’

“As Karen called her strong and powerful, Cecilia’s eyes got big as if she had just heard a new and foreign concept.  She smiled as she thought of herself as powerful.  In a few minutes she rejoined the class, quietly.”

Another story on teaching discrimination to children–probably because I was a bratty tattler as a child.

A boy approached his teacher at lunch.  “He told her what some other child was doing on the playground.  Sandi [the teacher] stopped him.  ‘Do you remember the difference between tattling and telling?’

“Jason paused as he tried to remember.  ‘Oh, yeah. Telling the truth is when you are trying to be helpful and protect someone from getting hurt, and tattling is when you are trying to get someone in trouble.’

“‘Which are you doing now, Jason?’

“Again he paused as he looked for his own motives.  Suddenly, he grinned.  ‘Never mind,’ he said, running off to play.”

I loved the part about teaching your child to breathe deeply and slowly when she becomes stressed.  You hold her tightly and ask her to mimic your breathing.  It teaches them to monitor their own patterns of stress and unrest.  I wish I would have learned this as a child.  I didn’t learn this until about five years ago.

Another great tool: confidence through affirmations.

“For example, at our school, if children say, ‘I’m so stupid!’ they are gently corrected.  We may reply, ‘You may feel frustrated, but you are not stupid.  Please tell me you’re feeling frustrated.’

“When a child in kindergarten or first grade says, ‘I can’t do it,’ we may answer gently, ‘Say, ‘I haven’t learned to do it yet.’’  By the time they are in third or fourth grade, they seldom waste energy asserting that they cannot do anything, because they know that positive thinking helps them learn.”  Dermond uses an example of an older child who was petrified of a ski lift on a school outing.  The winds had picked up, and the children ahead were screaming.  The boy’s face got white, and she overheard him whispering to himself, “I can do everything when so I think; I can do everything when so I think.”  It was a line of affirmation he’d learned in class, and he was using it appropriately, when he needed it.  She said that as they sat there, he relaxed, and “he was finally able to open his eyes and chat a little.”  How many adults could do this?

And I think most telling, unfortunately, is one of my last examples.  Heaven forbid I should be like the latter teacher…as a parent.

Dermond is telling of a personal experience.  “The year before I began teaching in a Living Wisdom School, I was a librarian in a public elementary school.  It was an amazing experience: I learned more that year than any other in my career because I got to observe how the varied teaching styles of twenty-one different teachers affected their classes.  One first grade teacher had a very outgoing, gregarious personality; her class was rowdy, happy, and easygoing.  Another first grade teacher was imaginative, humble, and dedicated.  She never raised her voice and often whispered to her children.  Her class was quiet and receptive–they treated the library almost like a temple.  I remember two third grade classes in particular.  One teacher was a loving, relaxed young woman who laughed easily.  Her children would come into the library asking for the latest book she was reading aloud to them.  Whatever the book they thought it was ‘the best book they ever heard,’ as they reflected her enthusiasm.  Her children adored her.

“I dreaded the arrival of the other third grade class.  There were undercurrents of dissatisfaction and bullying in this class.  When I finally had an occasion to spend a few minutes in this teacher’s classroom, I understood.  Had I not actually witnessed her classroom management style, I would not have suspected that she ruled with sarcasm and fault-finding.  She derided children who were not on task, in a scornful tone of voice.  It was obvious she had favorites, and that some children were not ever going to gain her favor.  I learned that it was not so much the different classes of children that had particular characteristics as it was their particular teachers.  The children in their charge reflected their personalities to a considerable degree.”

Now if that doesn’t call us to task as parents, I don’t know what will.

I’ve had to ask myself, Am I calm?  Do I show compassion?  Do I demonstrate appropriate techniques to Liliana when something goes awry in my day?  Am I compassionate to those around me, and do I include Liliana “in” on my reasoning and thinking?

Just a few of the things I’m pondering on this glorious day.