Leah Jacobson

Back to Kindergarten

A wise person once said: “Everything I need to know in life I learned in kindergarten.”

There is a simple truth in this statement that begs introspection as the world faces an existential crossroads.

While it may seem that current events are not child’s play, let’s see if we can break down some of the issues to their core. We can start by observing the world through a 5-year-old’s eyes.

Children greet the day with optimism, curiosity, and enthusiasm. They eagerly explore the wonders around them and enthusiastically invite friends to come along on their ride.

As adults we tend to complicate things. Our vision starts to cloud when low self-esteem and subtle self-consciousness sneak into our minds. As adolescents, peer pressure, pride and ulterior motives move in. Later on, these manifest as ego, career considerations and political party lines. Eventually, these social maladies move from individual dynamics to community and national levels, impacting international agreements and global economics fueled by religious fanaticism and baseless hatred. Without proper attention and productive communication, we get to situations like the one we find ourselves in today.

And this is where kindergarten comes in.

The kindergarten classroom in which I was privileged to co-teach with the exceptional Josie and Lea, was built on mutual respect and creating a positive space for all to reach their personal and collective potential. Recess time echoed these values and modeled conflict resolution from the legendary coach and PE teacher, Mr. A.

Communication was key in setting and abiding by class rules. Expectations were set high, because children, like most humans, tend to strive higher when they sense someone believes that they can achieve that goal.

We empowered the children to express themselves in a clear and respectful way. One child spoke at a time. All were expected to listen while their classmates spoke.

Thoughtful systems were put into place.  Stations were designed to invite creative and cooperative exploration. Our class rules included but were not limited to:

Everyone gets to play.

We take turns (often by signing up, so there was no mystery or uncertainty for the impatient youngsters)

We clean up after ourselves and leave the area of play neat and ready for the next customers.

As with many social structures, there was a learning process that occurred as children became accustomed to the new framework. As teachers we endeavored to give each child the time and guidance they needed to adapt. Clear boundaries were set in place for those who did not catch on. Or for those who defied the rules. The consequences were described at the outset, so that, again, children knew what was expected of them.

And the consequences were just that: a consequence of their own action, they were neither punitive nor arbitrary. Thus, the children learned accountability for themselves. They had the power to change their outcome.

The classroom needed to be a safe and welcoming place for all to learn. Neither violence nor physical or verbal outbursts were tolerated. If necessary, and occasionally it was, parents were called in to reinforce the importance of following along and contributing positively to the classroom as a whole.

Collective consequences for individual actions also happened at times, but this is also an important life lesson. You ARE your brother’s keeper to a very large extent.

Understanding this structure, let’s see what can be applied to our adult classroom called life. These skills are valuable for every person in every interpersonal relationship. But I wish today’s leaders, politicians, and demonstrators would take extra notice. Some of the very real issues we face today are results of a lack of defined frameworks and poor communication. For example:

The Gazan and Palestinian people largely lack the motivation to flourish and succeed. In the last number of decades, they have been encouraged by their tyrannical leaders and Arab nation neighbors to aim low and cry victim. The lower your expectations of someone, the more likely they are to descend.

Demonstrators either shout slogans or ignore attempts at constructive conversation. Dialogue is almost impossible to conduct with demonstrators for the simple reason that most of the masses simply do not know what they are shouting about. They sorely lack basic facts about the Arab/Israeli conflict, ancient and recent history. They resort to violence, and often with impunity, which quickly devolves into anarchy because they are not held accountable for their actions.  In our world of equal rights, the law-abiding citizens are getting a bum deal. Ironically “peace” activists are the ones causing the most conflict.

And where are our responsible leaders? Presidents, Prime Ministers and other political figures never miss an opportunity to point a finger or pass the buck. As a society we have lost faith in our leaders; their credibility is dismal. Often this is well-earned; public figures should be held to a higher standard. However, we must also seek the good in people, and leaders are no exception. An effective leader must earn respect and also give it back to their constituents. A responsible society models this because leaders are often a reflection of them. We should all be working together. Hearing each other out, imagining a day in the other’s shoes.

We must nurture these skills in order to bring society back to a safe and welcoming place for all:

Clear communication

Calibration of expectations

Mutual responsibility

Mutual respect

Working for the collective good

Using language that builds

Active listening

Meaningful responding

No violence or threats

Personal accountability

Collective responsibility

When leadership fails, we must step up and take the lead. If we model these behaviors, and demand it of our leaders, we can build the world we all deserve to live in, and what a joyous Kindergarten graduation that will be.

About the Author
Leah Jacobson made aliya to Raanana from Seattle with her husband and children in 2011. She is an artist, a Madrichat Kallot and a Jewish Educator. Her passion is integrating Torah learning with personal expression to keep our ancient texts relevant to modern life.
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