Teaching Kids to Make the ‘Right’ Choice

How to Grow Your Students’ Hearts Along With Their Brains

“We need to care less about whether our children are academically gifted and more about whether they sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.”

I’ve seen this quote making the rounds on social media a lot lately.  And as both a mother and a teacher, I hold this sentiment about our kids so close to my heart. We all hope our children will make the good decision, even if it’s not the popular one. But I also see that many parents struggle when it comes to encouraging this sort of behavior.

We want our children to sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria, but we’re hyperaware that this altruism might just label them an “outsider,” too. It can be so hard to push the child we love to make a decision that could lead them to being banished to an island of loneliness. Do we let them know that it’s OK to be on their own for a while? Or do we push them toward activities, clubs, sports, and behaviors that help them “fit in” with the crowd?

Real talk: Kids aren’t the only ones that face these choices. I’ve witnessed women in their 40’s choose fitting in over making the hard decisions, doing the right thing, and standing by the side of those who really deserve their support.

Author and speaker Brené Brown calls these situations the “wilderness,” a scary place where you might just have to stand alone from time to time. It’s untamed, unpredictable, and can have social consequences. But she says avoiding the wilderness is not an option—because to do so wouldn’t be true to your authentic self.

You and I both know that this pressure to “fit in” and conform often trumps the desire to be our true selves. Entering the wilderness means living a life that isn’t about pleasing others or doing what they deem acceptable. It means living authentically, doing the right thing, taking up for the underdog—even when it might just piss someone off!

It’s not about conforming. It’s not about what’s popular. It’s about that gut check: Is this really right in my heart? These are tough situations. And if it’s tough for adults, imagine how difficult it is for kids to navigate the wilderness!

That’s why it’s so important that we model the right behavior for our students. That we demonstrate how beautiful it is to surround ourselves with people who act and think differently than we do. That we encourage them to mix and mingle with those who have different interests, talents, skills, abilities. That we show them how to choose friends based on their values, not on superficial attributes like clothing, or cars, or cool gadgets. That we put a premium on kindness and acceptance.

When I look back on my time in high school, I can see that I surrounded myself with people who were very like me. People who came from the same type of family, who were involved in sports like I was, who wore the same kind of clothes I did.

And I realize that I missed out on getting to know some really interesting, amazing people. Thankfully, life has afforded me a second chance, and I’ve been able to reconnect with some of my old classmates. In high school, these individuals never performed a certain way to ensure their place in the “in” crowd. And they’ve brought that attitude with them into adulthood.

These awesome people are real, honest, and sooo themselves! I could have learned so much from them in high school. I’m just grateful I have that opportunity now.

And as adults and teachers, we all have the opportunity to instill the right behaviors in our children and students right now. It starts with being brave in our own lives, showing them that true belonging isn’t passive. It’s not taking the safe route, nor is it shying away from doing the right thing—even when that might mean taking a personal hit or disappointing someone.

You must show a child that it’s not about doing what’s easy; it’s about doing what’s right. And when they do what’s right, they are being true to their hearts and belong to themselves.

Brené Brown says, “It’s the most sacred place you’ll ever teach a child to stand.” And as teachers, it’s our responsibility to stand beside them.

Question: How do you encourage students to make the “right” choices, inside and outside the classroom? And what kinds of positive behaviors or interactions have you seen as a result? 

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