November 29, 2019

Updated: January 05, 2020

A Lesson in Emotional Intelligence With a Teenager

"Am I a good person?" the high schooler asked me several weeks ago as they boarded my school bus for the route home. "It depends" was my rather obtuse answer at the time having been caught off guard with such an unexpected question. That is until recently when I discovered the remains of a student's squandered lunch offerings scattered on floor at the back of the school bus at the end of my shift which required me to clean it up.

And between that unexpected question and unexpectedly cleaning up the bus floor in my irritation, I uncovered a connection.

A Pointed Conversation

Once all the students were back on board the next day following my discovery of food skewed across the floor, I demanded that the responsible party step off the bus for a chat. And to my surprise it was the student who had previously asked about being a good person:

"What is my number one rule on the bus that is two simple words?"

"Don't throw food?"


"Be Kind?"

"That didn't show me kindness. And I had to clean it up. You might as well have thrown it in my face."

"I'm sorry...I'm sorry...I'm sorry..."

"I'm not mad. I'm disappointed. Going forward, make better choices. Yes, there is no throwing food. And if you see someone doing it, alert me. I'll stop the bus and make them deal with it immediately."

Teachable Moments Abound

Author Harold Kushner writes in "Living a Life That Matters" that 'Am I a good person?' is better addressed by the question, 'What is the person I wish to become?' From children to adults, and particularly teenagers it seems, we all make poor choices. In fact, we want, even yearn to make poor choices typically out of envy, jealously, anger or desire.

Kushner goes on to state that everyone yearns to know that their lives were not insignificant, that they mattered in some way, especially to someone. And young adults, finding their place in the world, will also feel the desire to matter. But in trying to feel needed by another may act upon that feeling inappropriately and make poor choices. And where correction is appropriately called for, shaming can be a more effective deterrent than punishment.

A Small Ride With a Big Lesson

Ironically, minutes later and only a few seconds from our designated stop point I was alerted to thrown food and proceeded to do what I had just told my high schooler: I stopped the bus. The culprit (a different high schooler) identified themself while being outed by their fellow bus students, picked up the mess off the floor and proceeded to throw it into the waste basket to the applause of the other students. The student swiftly returned to their seat, humiliated.

In a very short distance we arrived at our designated stop location where the students exited to well-wishes for a great evening!

Be kind. Always.

Knowing that teenagers are not fully mature, and knowing that they are seeking to make sense of their place and importance, that they mattter in the larger universe, we need to remember that they will make poor choices. That means punishment born out of our personal anger is the wrong approach.

Good people will do good things because they are good people. And children will continue to present adults with numerous teachable moments due to their numerous bad choices. But if enough good adults (parents and guardians, law enforcement and social workers, store managers and floor associates, teachers and bus drivers) working together to teach the children of their community that they are inherently good people and are willing and able to teach them to make better life choices, the question of 'Am I good person?' will self-resolve.