I reluctantly sent my oldest child to kindergarten this year. Some kids are mean, and I was afraid my sensitive boy would get his feelings hurt. Well, of course he got his feelings hurt. It’s one of life’s great, inevitable misfortunes. He came home one day, distraught because someone called him dumb. Being a 5-year-old boy, he busily plotted his retribution. My husband and I sat down to discuss how to handle this newest parenting dilemma, and my husband, a behavioral counselor, asked to try a technique he uses with kids at work.
The next day, my husband called a family meeting — complete with a city of block towers. He explained to our boys that we’re each like a block tower, and our height is determined by how good we feel about ourselves. Some people, called “breakers,” try to make themselves taller by knocking blocks off other people, but that leaves everyone feeling smaller and broken. Breakers knock others down by name-calling, excluding, gossiping and teasing those around them. On the other hand, the “builders” go around building people up by complimenting, encouraging and including others. My husband explained that you never get shorter by building others up, and everybody feels better about themselves when a builder is around.
Then, he asked our son the most important question. “Are you a breaker or a builder?”
In our lives, we’re surrounded by both breakers and builders. The breakers, acting on their own insecurities, fall prey to the false belief that there’s a finite amount of cosmic goodness to go around. Breakers believe that when other people succeed, they themselves are somehow diminished. They try to take down everyone else so they’ll stand out. To a breaker, life is a competition to stand taller than those around them, and they often succeed at being visible. What I didn’t tell my 5-year-old is that breakers often do get ahead in life, mostly by being loud.
On the other hand, builders are a quieter, less assuming bunch. They aren’t often recognized for their good deeds, but everyone loves being around a builder. Builders understand that we all benefit when we feel good about ourselves and that another person’s good news is a reason for everyone to celebrate. My favorite part about builders is that they aren’t afraid to compliment others. They go out of their way to encourage and include others any way they can, even if, by worldly standards, they’re in competition for the same resources. Builders don’t feel threatened by the success of others, but they do feel genuine joy when someone else is happy.
I often ask myself whether I’m a breaker or a builder in my sphere of influence. Just because we’ve graduated past the playground doesn’t mean we’ve graduated beyond acting like mean kids. Every time I see another mom excluded from a play group or my friends start in with a round of gossip, I have a choice to make. When I see people viciously attacking on a comment thread or posting hateful things on social media, it’s another decision point. Less obvious but equally important, I can choose each day whether or not to let the breakers offend me and undermine my sense of self. Whether or not we let breakers break us down is our choice.
I want to live in a world with more builders. Some days it’s a struggle. However, if I want others to act like builders, I must have the courage to start with myself. Each day, I can either choose to break others down through my negativity, or I can build others up with my sincere praise. Each day is another opportunity to ask myself:
“Am I a breaker or a builder?”