A few weeks ago we talked about the power of words at youth group. One of the questions I posed to the high school students was, "Where are places that you encounter bad words or cruel speech?" I leaned back, expecting the usual responses, such as the walls of public restrooms or from the soccer goalie after the opposing team scores.
"Xbox Live," a sophomore boy said soberly. The others nodded in agreement. "Yeah, those elementary school kids are always cussing me out when I play 'Call of Duty,'" they agreed.
This was not what I expected. I reiterated what I thought I just heard to be sure. "Let me get this straight. You can talk to each other while you play video games on Xbox? Even with people you don't know? What is this witchcraft?"
They stared at me like I had just stumbled out from a cave that had only dial-up and floppy disk drives. Sensing that I was very unprepared to have a conversation about this, I quickly changed the subject, but as soon as I got home I did a little "research" and learned that according to both my friends on Facebook and strangers on Twitter, Xbox Live is, in fact, full of foul-mouthed elementary school kids. One 30-year-old gamer even said, "I try to tell them to clean up their language, but if a kid won't stop cussing, I stop playing with them."
Add this to the list of "things I had no idea kids have to deal with." When I was in primary school, I would have been terrified to talk to a stranger. Now some kids apparently cuss at strangers over a headset. Times certainly have changed.
For all the effort we put into making sure kids feel special, they can demonstrate shocking level of cruelty that leaves us adults feeling rather helpless. Words, once they are said, cannot be taken back, and insults from friends and strangers heard either in person or online can dig deep.
Most disturbing was the realization that primary school kids cussing at others was probably the result of someone cussing at them first. I felt as many teachers and parents must feel when they encounter cruelty -- the feeling of stumbling into a very sad cycle of bullying with anonymous beginnings I was powerless to stop.
No program or book can offer a quick fix to the lack of charity we encounter. I can't force kindness from children; I can only give them the tools they need and the reasons they should use them. In this case, the tools were genuine compliments and affirmation. Writing each name on a poster, we went around the room and wrote a good quality about that person, a way we thought that person revealed God to us. "Kind," "brave," "funny" and "Swag-tastic" (they are high-schoolers, after all) filled the pages. Everyone left in a good mood that night.
Kindness is learned through practice, just like the many other skills acquired in childhood. The classroom of kindness, however, can be unpredictable and children are always watching our example. Do we keep our cool when a driver cuts us off in traffic? Are we kind to a server who delivers our lunch to the wrong table? Do we take the time to compliment our parents, spouses, children and even strangers and share the reasons we're glad they're a part of our lives?
We can't control everything kids hear, but we can give an example of kindness and lots of opportunities to practice so that even when it's not easy, our first response is charity.