One small courageous gesture can shift the tide from meanness to compassion and empathy.

Responding to Meanness with Courage
April 18, 2012

One question I often ask participants at my gigs is: “When was the last time you witnessed an act of discrimination, and what did you do or not do about it?”  I came face to face with this question as I drove three13-year old boys across town to soccer practice. 
At the beginning of our trip, “Cody” and my son Santiago engaged in low-key banter in the backseat.  But when we picked up “Ian”, the mood shifted.  He snagged Santiago’s phone and called “Clarissa,” a girl he doesn’t know, and made moo’ing sounds.  He then texted “John,” and made some disparaging remarks about his afro.  My internal voice said, “pull over and confront this behavior.”  But my desire to keep harmony prevailed. Besides, I rationalized, we were running late.
After practice, the boys raced to the car, fighting for the coveted back seat.  Santiago was the “loser” and had to sit up front with me.  Ian continued his mean streak by putting down his teammates, and, in joining in on the fray, Cody said of a teammate, “he’s such a faggot.”   
Santiago turned around, and quietly but firmly said, “Dude.”  For the remainder of the ride, we sat in silence. 
Once they both were out of the car, Santi turned to me, apologized and said I would never have to drive these boys again if I didn’t want to.  I thanked him and told him how conflicted I was feeling.  Should I have pulled over and confronted the boys?  Should I have talked to their parents?  I was mindful that anything I did could reflect badly on Santi.  Moreover, I didn’t know these boys or their parents well.  What authority did I have to confront them and what result would it have?  Who exhibited the worse behavior?  Mean-centered Ian, with his sexist and racist tirades? Or mild-mannered Cody, who used a term that was personally offensive?
It is amazing how much space and influence mean behavior can take.  Like affirmation, degradation is infectious, and one person can spread poison to an entire group.  Ian claimed this toxic power as soon as he got in the car.
I have yet to determine what next steps I might take. I will likely set some ground rules of respect and safe space while the boys ride in my car, and hope that that can influence their behavior, if only in a small way.  In the meantime, I’m going to focus on the care and development of the one with whom I have the most influence – my son. 
After we got home, Santi, of his own accord, called both Clarissa and John to apologize and provide some words of support and encouragement.   I was proud that he took this initiative, and I intend to encourage these actions as he grows.
Wherever we gather – workplaces, community meetings, playgrounds, carpools- there is a potential for meanness.   But I also know that one small gesture can shift the tide toward compassion and empathy.  Santi taught me that lesson by calling out his friend and saying, “Dude.”  In the midst of wrongs, it was the right and courageous act.  For me, the next time I come face to face with the actions of a mean spirit, I will look toward Santi’s courageous example to do and say the right thing.


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  • Every 7 minutes, a child is bullied on the playground.
  • 3 million students are absent each month because they feel unsafe at school
  • 77% of students are bullied mentally, verbally, or physically.
I encourage you to  go see “Bully” an outstanding film that should be playing in your local theatres now.  If you have teens or pre-teens in your life, please take them!  For more information, go to

Also check out “Notes from the Playground,” at for more great insights on life, leadership and living courageously at any age.
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