See no evil

Vivian Paley's belief in the inherent kindness of children makes her ill-equipped to explain their unkind behavior.

Published April 14, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

In her slight, well-meaning new book "The Kindness of Children" (Harvard University Press),
MacArthur genius-award winner and former kindergarten teacher Vivian Gussin Paley begins with this quote
from Rabbi Yehuda Nisiah: "The moral universe rests upon the breath of
schoolchildren." In the 144 pages that follow, Paley works hard to prove
this point.

Paley's method is to scoop up stories of kindness and to transplant them,
in classroom after classroom, across the country. The action begins in a
school in London, which Paley happens to be visiting. A multiply
handicapped boy named Teddy is wheeled into the nursery school and he is
included -- spontaneously, at the invitation of another child -- into the playful
goings on. "It is a simple transaction, such as might be seen any place
where children play, but the joy it brings to Teddy's face fills my eyes
with tears," reports Paley. "What could I ever do to cause him to gaze at
me that way?"

Convinced that she has just witnessed "a sacred ritual," Paley subsequently
recalls the Teddy story for other children, for her mother, for friends.
That one story of kindness elicits other stories, memories, acts of kindness
and a chain reaction ensues. To a group of Chicago high school students,
Paley explains her methodology: "... if I use a story such as Teddy's as
an example of what I enjoy writing about, something else happens. People
will smile at each other, maybe tell a story of their own or talk about
their feelings ... And soon the stories are connecting and lead us along
other passages." In some classes, Paley, relying on the story dramatization
method for which she is famous, has the children act out the stories that
they tell. To give someone a role to play, she explains, "is akin to
offering new life to a wandering soul. If this feels like a spiritual
moment, why not call it that?"

Paley cannot hide her pleasure at all the acts of kindness she not only
finds but (and she admits to craving hero status for herself) induces.
"Here it is again," she reports, as one child in a classroom she visits
answers another child's nightmare by reporting on a pleasant dream she'd
had, "the incredible ability of children to create moments of hopefulness
for one another, to explain in secret or open ways that somewhere there is a
garden with birds and flowers, where everything is calm and quiet, and there
are no nightmares. And that when we are lonely, a friend will come."

Next to Gitta Sereny's disturbing "Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill: The Story of Mary Bell" -- which requires readers to grapple with our notions of good and evil in children through the story of a notorious 11-year-old killer -- it is easy to see why "The Kindness of Children" is so popular. It is tempting to want to just go with the flow of Paley's book, to blithely believe
that most children are not just born angels, but remain, for quite a while,
in that pose. But it's inevitable that Paley will trip up against
unkindness, and when she does, she seems ill-equipped to explain it. When,
for example, 8-year-old Carrie tells Paley about the humiliation she's
been exposed to in school, the most Paley can offer is that it's a serious
matter, a riddle that she herself cannot answer. A few pages later, when
fifth-graders challenge some of the assumptions Paley's been making, she
diverts the conversation by recalling -- what else? -- the Teddy story.

"I feel a surge of pleasure and optimism, knowing that my audience is about to hear a
story that will remind them of who they were and can become again," Paley tells us. But we never find out how her audience responds. She gives herself the
last word.

By Beth Kephart

A recipient of an NEA grant this year, Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Award finalist. Her new book, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," will be released in the fall.

MORE FROM Beth Kephart

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