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A Moment of Silence: A Simple Way to Improve Schools and Society

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Published on February 27, 2012 by Izzy Kalman in A Psychological Solution to Bullying

I am a lover of simple solutions. While we tend to think that solutions are difficult, this is usually wrong. It is problems that are difficult. When we have problems, we are working hard to solve them and whatever we are doing isn’t working, so it seems like the solution must be something very difficult. But usually when we find a solution that works, it turns out to be something very simple.

Moment_of_SilenceBefore I continue, a few caveats. I am writing strictly as a social scientist. Please don’t make any assumptions about my religious beliefs based on this article. What I’m writing here is irrelevant to a belief in a higher being. I am a staunch proponent of separation of church and state. And what I am presenting here is not meant to be a comprehensive solution to bullying (though I suspect it may be at least as effective as the time consuming anti-bullying programs that are proud to reduce bullying by twenty percent). Rather, it is a way to improve the school environment, home life and society in general with a minimal investment of time and effort.

Several years ago, a man in the audience of my Anger Control Made Easy seminar in Manhattan stood out to me like a sore thumb. He sported a long gray beard and wore a white shirt, black suit and the particular style of black hat that comprise the unofficial uniform of the Lubavitch sect of Chassidim, also known as Chabad Chassidim. I am intimately familiar with Lubavitcher Chassidim because I had attended the Lubavitcher Yeshiva (religious school) of the Bronx from first through eighth grades, my wife has several siblings who became Lubavitcher Chassidim, and a Chabad synagogue opened near my house a few years ago, becoming the synagogue I attend. I was, in fact, very surprised that a Lubavitcher Chassid would attend my secular seminar, as they believe the answers to all life’s questions can be found within their own sect’s teachings.

I was even more surprised to see that this man wanted to stay afterwards to talk to me. He introduced himself as Avraham Frank, and he wanted more advice on how to apply my teachings in his work. We ended up keeping up sporadic phone contact ever since.

A couple of years ago he told me about a mission he had taken upon himself. On his own time and expense, he’d been promoting a school program called A Moment of Silence. (In fact, it is so simple I am not even sure the world “program” is applicable). He tries to convince schools to implement a minute or two of silence every morning. This is not a new idea. There are, in fact, several states in the U.S. that have mandated A Moment of Silence for schools. (When presented as a secular activity, these mandates have been deemed Constiutional by the Supreme Court.) But Mr. Frank’s version has a particular twist to it. The students are requested to discuss with their parents what they should be contemplating during the moment of silence in school. I will be discussing shortly, this may make all the difference.

Mr. Frank told me the results have been amazing. I was initially skeptical, but when I looked at dozens of letters from kids and the video testimonials from teachers, principals and parents, I couldn’t help but be greatly impressed–and curious.

Mr. Frank explained that he promotes the program because the late Lubavitcher Rebbe (‘rebbe’ is an endearing term Chassidic groups use for their leader), Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, had expressed the desire to see all schools implementing A Moment of Silence. Frank took it upon himself to make his Rebbe’s wish a reality.

Regardless of one’s religious beliefs or lack of such, when a man like the Lubavitcher Rebbe makes a recommendation for society, it would be smart to give it consideration. In addition to being a Jewish scholar, Rabbi Schneerson was a true genius and a profoundly wise man–and wisdom is the solution to life’s problems. In 1995 the U.S. Congress posthumously awarded him a Gold Medal in honor of his contribution to education and designated his birthday as Education and Sharing Day, U.S.A.

So I gave A Moment of Silence some consideration and for the past year or so, have been mentioning it in my monthly Bullies to Buddies newsletters. As a result, many schools throughout the world have adopted A Moment of Silence and they love the results.

Why does A Moment of Silence work? I will do my best to offer some explanations.

One, it is a powerful experience. If you have ever participated in a memorial service in which everyone is silent for a minute or two, you probably know what it is like. Time seems to pass more slowly, as everyone is united in a communal ceremony of thoughtful silence.

Two, it promotes self-control. It is not easy to be silent and still for a full minute or two, and the younger the child is, the more difficult it is. So when children practice silence for a minute or two every school day, they attain self-control that can be available to them at any time. The development of the ability to stay silent is probably enhanced by the fact that everyone else is doing it, too. Even kids with generally poor control are more likely to try to be still when they see everyone else around them doing it.

Three, when the Moment of Silence is conducted at the beginning of the school day, it sets the mood for the rest of the day.

Four, it can serve as a form of meditation for kids. The benefits of meditation have already been well established by scientific research.

And the fifth factor I will present is the one that has to do with the particular component Rabbi Schneerson added: instructing kids to discuss with their parents what they should think about. This factor is perhaps the one most crucial for the success of the program.

The effectiveness of A Moment of Silence in the states that do implement it is debatable. My most recent seminar tour was in Texas, one such state. But seminar participants informed me that it’s just another activity the schools are doing simply because it’s mandated. They are quiet for a minute to comply with the mandate but it is not taken seriously. Thus, the minute becomes essentially meaningless.

Many people today, particularly people who want to see bullying reduced, are bemoaning that schools no longer teach values, that they have become amoral places that try to prepare kids for acceptance into college but don’t instill any meaning into their lives. And another thing many people decry, especially experts in violence, is the progressively weakening bond between children and parents. This bond may be weakening for a number of reasons. One of them is the replacement of human interactions with electronic media, a process whose greatest giant-step was the introduction of television into the home.

A second cause is the importance that parents themselves place on school. Most parents treat school demands as more important than their own. They make sure that their children attend daily and do their homework and projects in the evening and on weekends. How many parents would dare tell their children, “Forget your homework. I need you to do the laundry” or “You’re skipping school today cause we’re going to the movies”? Moreover, many schools assign homework during summer vacation as well so that kids and their parents should never be free of their obligations to the school.

A third major cause of the weakened child/parent bond is the wholesale entrance of women into the workforce. For families to survive economically in the modern world, most women need to put in a full workweek (not to mention that many women prefer having a career to being a housekeeper). Thus, school has been slowly but surely taking over children’s lives. Many kids not only get lunch in school but breakfast as well. Many schools have what amount to babysitting services so that working parents can drop off their children long before school begins and pick them up a few hours after it is over. “No Child Left Behind” laws effectively reduce parents’ responsibility for children’s academic success and place it squarely on the school’s shoulders. The expectation that schools be responsible for children round-the-clock has become so normal that most parents demand that the school be held responsible for kids’ bullying not only during school but afterwards, including in cyberspace.

Thus, the more dominant schools become in the lives of children, the less significant the parents become in their minds.

Furthermore, many parents do not want their schools teaching their children “values.” Who is to decide what values the school should try to inculcate into their children? To avoid fighting with parents over the appropriate values to teach, it is easier to avoid teaching values at all. “Anti-bullying” has become the most universally accepted values teaching that schools have come up with, but it turns out that even here there are some vehement areas of disagreement among parent groups about what should be included.

As a result, students are largely in a moral/spiritual limbo. Their home lives revolve around homework and electronic devices, schools are teach-to-the-test college preparation factories, and parents are the servants that are expected to work hard to pay the bills, drive the kids around, bring them play dates, make sure they do their homework, etc.

And that is where the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s brilliance comes in. With his version of the Moment of Silence, schools can restore to parents their rightful role as the moral/spiritual authorities for their children. The schools are in essence declaring to students, “Yes, you do spend a good chunk of your day here and work for us at home, too, but your parents are the ones you need to look to for meaning in life.”

It only takes minutes, but the children need to discuss with their parents what they should be thinking about during the powerful Moment of Silence in school. The kids are now expected to look up to their parents as their moral/spiritual authorities. But consider also what it does for the parents’ self-esteem when the school officially recognizes them as moral/spiritual authorities! Furthermore, there is a good chance that many parents today, with all the pressures of work and the hectic pace of modern society, don’t even devote time to considering what’s truly important. In order to help their children think of topics for Moment of Silence contemplation, the parents need to think about it as well! And because parents care about their children more than anyone else, they tend to take their role in A Moment of Silence seriously.

This simple activity completely avoids problems of conflicts between school and parent over values because the parents are relied on for the values–as they should be. The values can be religious or secular. And if the kids prefer to spend their Moment of Silence fantasing about pleasures, thinking about how their parents’ values are wrong, or thinking about nothing at all, that is fine, too. No one knows the better.

Regardless of what any individual child is thinking during A Moment of Silence, the majority are thinking positive things, and doing so at the same time. Children are less likely to behave badly when they have begun the day together silently contemplating, each in their own way, how to improve their lives and the world. It should not be surprising that A Moment of Silence is profoundly powerful and is almost universally loved by the parents, staff and students of the schools that practice it seriously.

I therefore give A Moment of Silence my strongest endorsement. I think it just may be the single most effective way to improve schools and society, and at essentially no expense. The small amount of time invested pays for itself many times over. For one or two effortless minutes per day, school atmosphere improves, kids and staff become happier, aggression declines, staff waste less time trying to keep students on task and dealing with discipline problems, and academic achievement goes up. And, last but not least, the parents come to appreciate their children’s schools like never before.

Avraham Frank has created a website for A Moment of Silence. It contains the simple instructions for implementing it effectively, and if you wish, he will give you his personal guidance free of charge. Moreover, he will even get on the phone to try to convince your school administration to give it a try.

To learn more, go to Mr. Frank’s website, http://momentofsilence.info/

Best Wishes,

Izzy Kalman

[Defending someone’s right to speak doesn’t mean you agree with what they say. Recognizing that others have different views about art, politics, literature and religion, and that their views are entitled to the same respect and protection as your own, is a form of tolerance required of all in a pluralistic society. – National Coalition Against Censorship]

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