In 1916, Lily Hammond authored a book called Garden of Delight, stating "You don't pay love back; you pay it forward."

The concept is easy to understand: one person does something nice for someone else, inspiring that person to do something nice for the next person, creating a ripple effect like the one depicted in this video from Life Vest Inside.

 

While the phrase "pay it forward" is often associated with acts of kindness, the concept can, unfortunately, be applied to acts of anger and aggression, too.

During my first or second year of teaching (I can't remember which), my Kindergarten students and I were learning about birds. 

With a wooded lot right outside our classroom window, we hung a beautiful birdhouse from a low hanging branch right outside, hoping a mama bird would make her nest inside.

The children were so excited about the idea of birds living inside the house they started assigning shifts to one another, dictating who would watch and when.

They devised a plan to tally mark how many times each bird flew in and out in a day and couldn’t wait to make observational drawings, looking through Field Guides trying to guess which species would take up residence first.  

We read books about birds; we went on nature hikes, looking for bird nests; we made bird feeders out of pine cones and shortening, rolling them in bird seed; and we cut up tiny bits of yarn, placing them inside netted fruit and vegetable sacks, hanging them outside so mama birds could find soft nesting materials for their hatchlings.

To say we had "birds on the brain" was a complete understatement.

One Monday morning, after returning from a long, three-day weekend, the kids were chomping at the bit to get inside our classroom, confident a mama bird had made a home for her babies inside our birdhouse.

As they entered the room and approached the window, however, the buzz of excitement quickly turned into shrieks of horror.

Apparently, over the weekend, some teenagers had vandalized our birdhouse, using a baseball bat or something similar to beat it as if it were a piñata stuffed with candy.

Mortified, my five- and six-year-old students were incapable of understanding how or why someone would have done such a thing, not just to the birdhouse but to the baby birds they had hoped would be living inside. 

Unsure how to console them, the only thing I knew to say was this:

There are some people in this world who are so unhappy they'll do anything to steal the happiness of others.

In the moment, that was the best I could do but it seemed to work well enough for us to have a lengthy conversation about how we wanted to move forward:

Did we want to get so angry about the situation that we allowed our anger to spill out onto others, stealing their joy? 

OR, did we want to move past the problem, remembering how awful it feels when someone does something mean so we’re less likely to do something mean to others?

Obviously, as resilient and loving as children are, my students elected for the second option, swearing they would 1) never do anything intentional to hurt someone else's feelings and 2) pay more attention to how their actions affected others.

I was reminded of this event (from over fifteen years ago!) just the other night when I was angry at my husband and, as a result, snapped at my daughter. 

Andy had left that morning for a meeting up north, which was about 4 hours away; unsure if he would be returning home or staying the night in a hotel, I was waiting to hear from him and, as bedtime was quickly approaching, I was beginning to get concerned.

After trying to call several times, and being sent directly to his voicemail, I started crafting him a text, letting him know that the kids and I were headed to bed and that I hoped he was ok. 

While typing the text, my daughter Harper (6) made a comment about me being on the phone after bath time (as we’ve tried to set some boundaries around our usage of technology in the evenings) and frustrated by his lack of communication, but also annoyed by her comment, I snapped at her, breaking both her heart and mine. 

She quickly ran away from me and into her room, slamming the door while bawling her eyes out. 

As you can imagine, I felt AWFUL.

Earlier this month, Andy and I'd had a conversation with both Harper and Frank (4)about March “coming IN like a lion and going OUT like a lamb,” attempting to acknowledge the fact that we ALL needed to be better about controlling our volume and “taming our tongues." 

Angry at myself for yelling at Harper the way I did, I stood outside her bedroom door and asked her to forgive me, saying...

I’m so sorry, Harper. I was frustrated with daddy and let my frustration spill over onto you. I shouldn’t have done that; I'm trying to be more like a lamb. Will you please forgive me?

She quickly opened up the door, took a deep breath, wiped away her tears, gave me a hug and said “Of course I will mama, I love you.

Bending down to hug her back, images of that old birdhouse flooded my memory, inspiring me to back up my apology with this:

You know how we can be in a good mood and smile at people for no reason, then they smile back at us? Well, sometimes we can be in a bad mood and push that off on to others, too. Thank you for forgiving me, allowing us both to calm down and move on; your forgiveness means more to me than you could ever know! 

Just then, my phone rang, showing Andy's name as the caller.

Taking a deep breath, I answered his call, asking if he was ok when he promptly apologized, explaining his cell phone had died and he had forgotten to charge it.

Still upset with him about the lack of communication, I would have probably retaliated with a smart-alec comment but, because of the exchange I'd just had with Harper, I quickly said, "It's ok...I forgive you” instead.

After Harper and Frank both hopped on the phone, saying goodnight to their daddy, I looked at Harper and said:

Thank you again for forgiving me so quickly. I was still kind of mad at daddy when he called and probably would have said something that wasn't very nice but, instead, I paid your forgiveness forward and didn't allow myself to say something mean.

While working with young children for over twenty years, I'd often hear the phrase “children are little bunnies with big ears,” implying they hear EVERYTHING that is said around them. 

Last night, it was my turn to be the bunny.

Listening to Harper reminded me that many of our actions, and emotions, are passed on to those around us, good or bad, and that forgiveness is something we need to be "paying forward" the most because doing so not only helps the (for)giver overcome feelings of frustration and anger, but it enables the receiver to overcome feelings of frustration and anger, too.

TIP: Several years ago, I overheard my children's daytime sitter instructing them to say "I forgive you," NOT "It's OK," after someone had committed an offense against them. While the slight change seems so simple, it makes a HUGE difference in the minds of children as the phrase "It's OK" literally implies the child's offensive behavior was, in fact, "OK" giving the offending child the go-ahead to commit such behaviors in the future. Explicitly saying "I forgive you," instead, however makes it clear that an offense was committed and that the child on the receiving end has made a conscious decision to forgive the offender.

What do you think? Do you have any other suggestions for dealing with situations such as these? If so, please share them in the comments below. Thanks! 

Beth Nowak is a former Kindergarten teacher and mother of two who wanted to make memories with her children while making a difference in her community. Helping other parents do the same, she left the classroom to create Giving Families' Good Mail Challenges... fun and easy, family-friendly giveback activities that can be completed anytime, anywhere using materials readily available in most homes. To learn more and join the family, visit GivingFamilies.com.