The Meaning of Life According to Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is known for her great poetry and her shyness. While she rarely left her home, especially later in life, she adored her nieces and nephews and wrote often to family and friends. Her poetry includes timeless topics such as nature, death, hope, and kindness. One of her poems I share with elementary school children in the Respect Program is:

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

There are two themes here to discuss with children. First, that acts of kindness are important. Second, that kindness makes life meaningful. We all want things to happen that don’t occur. Sometimes our team doesn’t win, we don’t place in a competition, or we don’t have as much money has we wish we did. While these are disappointments, they do not mean that our life is without meaning. There will be other competitions, new goals to strive for, and (no matter what) opportunities every day to do some small act of kindness that proves we “shall not live in vain.”

Small act of kindness in Emily Dickinson’s life were not just about helping others, but about giving her life purpose. For example, she baked cookies and prepared other goodies for her nieces, nephews, and the other neighborhood children. After cooking them, she would take the baked goods up to her bedroom, on the second story of her house. There, she would place them in a basket with a rope tied to it. Next, she would wave to the children playing outside and, as they came near the house, she would lower the basket with the rope so they could enjoy the food.

The poem above and this story are a part of the Respect Program because they provide an accessible introduction to a poetic genius, and a reminder that small acts of love leave a legacy all their own.

Activities for Parents and Teachers

Talk about the poem with your children and ask them to name small acts of kindness they can perform, like saying “Hi” to a shy student at school or listening to a friend talk about something they love to do. Ask them: “Does being kind improve your mood?” or “Does being kind to someone make you feel different about how your day is going?”

Read the book Poetry for Young People, Emily Dickinson with your children. This collection includes the poem above as well as some poems that describe various animals (without mentioning the animals’ names). Have your child or class guess what the animal is in each poem. The answers are upside down in the book (on each poem’s page). This activity can build children’s confidence as well as support reading comprehension skills.

Questions for Journaling or Discussion:

What are some small acts of kindness that you are glad to have done for other people?

What small acts of kindness can you do tomorrow to help others?

What gives your life meaning?

How can a kind act for another person improve your well-being?

Art made with wax sticks, crayons, and paper by a child in the Respect
Program. The picture is of two children holding a heart between them.

Book Review: The Red Pig

I recently met Kelly Ann Guglietti, a wonderful children’s author with a passion for helping children build their self-esteem and empathy to help protect them against bullying.

The Red Pig is a wonderful book of hers for early elementary school children. In addition to the story, there is a section at the end of the book filled with activities and questions for children to answer about how to deal with bullying. The questions are a great way to help children think about how they can create a safe social culture in their school or community center.

The story is about a pig, Cyrus Bacon, who lives on a farm with other animals. He is red because he is angry about being bullied. In his anger, he starts to bully those who have been unkind to him. Realizing that this is only making the other animals angry, he decides to change his ways. He begins by volunteering to help the other animals plan an anniversary party for Farmer Ray and his wife Adelia. At first no one wants him to help. However, once he apologizes for being rude to them, he is invited to be a part of the anniversary party team.

The story is realistic in that a person being bullied will sometimes start to bully others. Cyrus could have continued to be bitter and resentful towards the other animals, but he chooses to end the cycle of bullying by taking responsibility for his actions. By being the one to change, he changes the social culture.

I wish the farm animals in the story had not bullied Cyrus to begin with, but I am very proud of Cyrus. His kinder behavior stops the cycle of bullying that all the characters have been trapped in for a long time.

Learn more about Kelly Ann’s books at:

Kelly Ann Guglietti, with her book The Red Pig

Book Review: The Power of One

Trudy Ludwig has been a favorite children’s author of mine since I met her in the mid-2000s. Her books present wonderful life lessons to help children deal with bullying and stand up for themselves in an assertive, rather than aggressive, way.

Her latest book is The Power of One – Every Act of Kindness Counts. The story is about all the small ways we can be kind, build friendships, and grow a caring community.

The text shares specific things we can do for others while the illustrations show seeds being planted which eventually turn into a thriving community garden. The illustrations by Mike Curato are beautiful. As the characters in the story plant seeds, Curato’s pictures bring the garden to life and shows the joy of building a positive community.

Trudy also includes information for adults in the back of the book on simple ways to grow a positive community through actions like “including the excluded in your group, game, or activity” and “having the courage to take responsibility for intentional/unintentional wrongdoing by apologizing and making up for the hurt you’ve caused others.”

My favorite part in the story is when she says, “One good listener…can make even the smallest voice heard.” Listening to others is one of the most powerful things we can do to make all children and adults feel welcome and appreciated. Getting children to think about the importance of listening is a critical step in stopping bullying, understanding different perspectives, and creating a safe social culture where children can thrive.

“You don’t have to be a superhero to be a hero in another kid’s eyes,” says Trudy. “It all starts with each of us reaching out in kind ways to make a positive difference in others’ lives. And the more acts of kindness we do, the better we become in improving our relationships with one another and our communities.”

Trudy Ludwig and the cover of her latest book.

Being Confident Can Help a Child Be Bully Proof

When I work with children, each child decorates a box around the theme: “What is my talent?” I also have them write down their skills on pieces of paper to put in the box. That way, they take home a tangible reminder of the talents and hobbies they have. Some write about their love of playing guitar or dancing. Others write about being good at chess or sports.

I’m Gonna Like Me: Letting of a Little Self-Esteem by Jamie Lee Curtis is a great book to pair with this activity for children ages 4-8.

The more a child knows their worth, the less they will be bothered by those who bully them. After all, why listen to a bully when you know what they say is not true?

Strong self-esteem, hobbies, and talents help children relax and feel confident during times they are bullied. Making these boxes with classmates also helps children to have a shared joyful experience together, which supports a safe social environment.

If you are interested in bringing the Respect Program to your community, please let me know. I have brought the program to schools, after-school programs, summer camps, and houses of worship. In addition to children’s lessons, I also offer anti-bullying workshops for adults where I share various research-based strategies and an overview of the impact bullying has on children.

A child in the Respect Program decorates a box and includes a note that says “I’m good at piano.”

The Greatest Gift We Can Offer a Friend

In my darkest days I have struggled with chronic pain, bullying, workplace bullying, and divorce. During these times, my friends couldn’t change any of these situations. I was the person who had to pursue new medical treatments, find a new job, and grieve a past relationship. However, the simple act of a friend listening reminded me that I was still loved, that my feelings were valid, and that I did have skills to improve my situation.

How has a friend listening helped you heal? Please leave a reply below to share the blessings of listening.

In addition, to encourage conversation about listening with children and adults, share William Carlos Williams’ poem below. This poem beautifully describes the great gift of being present for a friend.

The Friend Who Just Stands

When trouble comes your soul to try, 
You love the friend who just “stands by.” 
Perhaps there’s nothing he can do- 
The thing is strictly up to you; 
For there are troubles all your own, 
And paths the soul must tread also alone; 
Times when love cannot smooth the road 
Nor friendship lift the heavy load, 
But just to know you have a friend 
Who will “stand by” until the end, 
Whose sympathy through all endures, 
Whose warm handclasp is always yours- 
It helps, someway, to pull you through, 
Although there’s nothing he can do. 
And so with fervent heart you cry, 
“God bless the friend who just ‘stands by’!”

By: William Carlos Williams

An art project made out of wax sticks by a student in the Respect Program. The lesson theme that day was “Healthy Friendships.”

How Would You Describe a Friendship?

How to Be a Friend: A Guide to Making Friends and Keeping Them (Dino Tales: Life Guides for Families) By Laurie Krasny Brown, with pictures by Marc Brown, is a great book for ages 4 – 8 years old about how to build friendship skills. I highly recommend it for ideas not only on how to get a friend (asking someone to play, for example), but also because it talks about what a healthy friendship is. In the book she writes, “Anyone who is nice to you and likes to play with you can become a friend.”

When I talk with children about developing health friendships, one activity I enjoy sharing with them is to ask them to create a symbol or word that shows what friendship means to them. This is one example a child in the Respect Program created:

A stone painted to show a peace sign plus a heart equals the words “Be Respectful.”

Don’t forget to be creative today!

What can we learn from Robert Louis Stevenson about joy and play?

The Swing

How do you like to go up in a swing, 

   Up in the air so blue? 

Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing 

   Ever a child can do! 

Up in the air and over the wall, 

   Till I can see so wide, 

Rivers and trees and cattle and all 

   Over the countryside— 

Till I look down on the garden green, 

   Down on the roof so brown— 

Up in the air I go flying again, 

   Up in the air and down!

– Robert Louis Stevenson

Poetry for Young People,  Robert Louis Stevenson is for readers ages eight and up and it is a great introduction to poetry for children because the poems are from the perspective of children.

I love the pure joy the poem’s speaker is sharing in The Swing. We all need fun recreational activities, as seen in this poem, to help us recharge and experience joy and serenity. Robert Louis Stevenson had serious health problems throughout his life, but he didn’t let that stop him from creating beautiful stories and poems that celebrate play and a child’s imagination.

As a young child, I loved to swing and started writing poems. His poetry inspired me and reminded me of the importance of creativity. Today, I think his poems are more important than ever as a window to a world not filled with smart phones and video games. Adults and children still need to enter a world of play separate from technology and his poems can spark conversation and acitivties with children around this subject.

Activities for Parents and Teachers:

Ask children what they like to do for fun.  Then ask them what they like to do for fun that doesn’t involve a phone, computer or any other type of technology.

Ask them to write two sentences or a poem about an activity that they like to do that doesn’t involved technology.

Questions for the Day for Discussion or Journalling:

What are the activities that brought me joy as a child?  

What recreational activities bring me joy today?  Can I do more of them to help me relax and recharge?

Poetry for Young People, Robert Louis Stevenson

What specific talents and joys help you remember your worth?

There is a charming book I read in programs for children ages 4 – 8 called “I’m Gonna Like Me – Letting Off a Little Self-Esteem.” The book is filled with great illustrations by Laura Cornell and was written beautifully by Jamie Lee Curtis. I particularly like that the speaker loves herself not only for her talents, but also when she makes mistakes.  

The book ends with a question: “I’m gonna like me, I already do, but enough about me, how about you?”

Giving a child a chance to speak up about their abilities, talents and things they enjoy doing is inspiring. I love seeing their faces light up when they share things that mean the world to them.  

So many children, and adults, have been told they don’t matter. When we hear this message over and over again from others, we can start to believe it if we forget to value ourselves. 

Remember, we are all enough and there are things each of us is passionate about that help us grow, contribute to the world in a positive way, and relieve our stress.

We all need to be reminded of the treasurers within each of us to thrive in this world.  One activity I do with children around this issue is to ask them to write on a piece of paper what they love about themselves.  Then they get a wooden box to decorate and I tell them to place the word in the treasure box to remember their amazing talent.  Here is one child’s work from one of my classes:

Have a great day filled with creativity and high self-esteem!

What can we learn from Robert Frost about opportunities to build friendships?

The Pasture

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring; 

I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away 

(And wait to watch the water clear, I may): 

I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too. 

I’m going out to fetch the little calf 

That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young, 

It totters when she licks it with her tongue. 

I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too. 

-Robert Frost

At the age of 23 I started graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. I had been through a lot of bullying in my life and didn’t trust many people. And here I was, in a new city were I didn’t know a soul. I slowly began to meet people and one day early in my time there, a woman I had met in my classes called me and said, “I free today, want to do something?” “Yes” I replied. At the time it struck me that I wouldn’t have had the courage to make that simple request of someone.  We became good friends and to this day I appreciate the fact that she reached out.

Sometimes all it takes is an invitation to open someone up and begin a great friendship. The simple act of invitation is why The Pasture is such an important poem for children and adult alike to ponder.  While most people do now live in cities and have different chores, the simple act of the speaker inviting someone into their daily experience is filled with serenity and kindness. Serenity in that there is no complaining about what the speaker has to do and kindness in wanting to share that peacefulness with someone else.

I read this poem for the first time with my parents as a child and I was struck by the gentleness of the speaker and the peacefulness of the world that child describes. In my 30s I taught children in Memphis about Robert Frost and used the Poetry for Young People – Robert Frost book as a reference. 

The book is ideal for 8-14 year olds and this poem in particular opens the door to discuss invitations we can make to grow and strengthen friendship. This poem doesn’t end with the other child saying “yes” although I would like to believe she did. However, even if she didn’t, it was well worth the effort of the child speaking in the poem to say, “You come too.” Because an invitation to spend time with someone is a great gift we all can give another human being. It allows us to communicate clearly to another person that they are important and valued.

Activities for Parents and Teachers:

In Poetry for Young People – Robert Frost, a couple of lines of commentary are included about this poem. The book’s editor explains that this poem is an invitation, but also that “Frost is…asking his reader to come into his world —a world of pastures, leaves, spring, and young calves newly born.” Ask children if they would say “yes” to the speaker of the poem and why.  

While most of us don’t have access to a farm, invite your children to a green space, a park or national wildlife refuge, to see a grassy area or stream for themselves. Talk about the fish and birds that use the area for habitat. Ask each child to invite a friend to attend, just like Robert Frost did.

Questions for the day for discussion or journalling:

When was a time that someone invited you somewhere fun?  How did you feel when they asked you?

Do you know someone who you could get to know better by inviting them to hang out with you? 

Children’s Activity: Creating Diversity Sculptures

I highly recommend Mem Fox’s book Whoever You Are (for children ages 4-8) and Walt Whitman’s volume of the Poetry for Young People Series (ages 9 – 12) to spark conversations around diversity.

Once we read one of these, or other books on diversity, children in The Respect Program create diversity sculptures. I provide children standard colors in model magic clay as well as four different colors of clay for skin tones. It is amazing to see what the children create.  Here is a favorite if mine from a past program. I love how the child combined the red and white colors in the two figures outstretched arms.

What are other ways to start discussions on diversity, equity and inclusion with the children in your life?