Ahead of anti-bullying week, which this year has the theme One Kind Word, Kate Jane Neal explains how she was led by God to create a series of resources which teach children their worth as human beings made in the image of God
The first hand shot up as I asked a class: “Is anyone brave enough to share a word that has hurt them?” A girl with a head of the most beautiful auburn hair and kind, bright blue eyes answered.
“Fat,” she said.
There was a sea of hands.
“Stupid”, “idiot”, “gay”. A ream of words spewed forth, each one an arrow that undermined character and identity.
I was delivering a session for a class of seven and eight-year-old children in my local school, based around the Words and Your Heart picture book that I had just published.
“These words are not OK,” I told them. “I am so sorry that you have heard these words. None of you deserve to have these words spoken over you, to you or about you.”
As the children continued to offer their words, I fought to overcome the tears pricking at my eyes. I asked them: “Would you like to exchange these words for a better word?”
This was one of the first times I had delivered my ‘word exchange’ workshop, a part of what is now a fully-fledged primary school wellbeing resource called The Culture of the Heart. But how did I end up in a primary school listening to children share words that had hurt them?
I have four children, all in the state school system. The stories I have heard over the years about bullying and antisocial behaviour left me feeling helpless and heartbroken at times. My children and their friends were hurting and I wanted to help, but felt so powerless. So I turned my heart to God, who is not helpless or powerless.
Over the following weeks, as I prayed, God’s heart became more tangible. I knew, without a doubt, that it was Jesus who whispered to me and said: “This book is about your heart, the little bit inside of you that makes you, you. Write the book, Kate.” In that moment I saw the framework of a book, and knew instinctively that it was in my heart to write.
As a trained artist, I was used to sketching, painting big canvases and making sculptures. I had exhibited around the world, but illustrating and writing stories was new. Nevertheless, an idea began to form in my mind. I started to write, and soon, Words and Your Heart was born. It was written to teach children about the power of their words – both positive and negative.
Called into schools
Being a mother of four, it has long been my habit to do the night watch, sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to pray. With no distractions and no needs to be met, it’s just me, my Bible and God. During one of those nights, I felt God ask me a question: “Will you come in to school with me?”
I FELT GOD SAY: “MY IMAGE IS THE DEFAULT SETTING OF EVERY HUMAN HEART. WILL YOU GO AND CALL IT OUT IN MY CHILDREN?”
Let me be very clear here. I have never wanted anything to do with schools. I am the daughter of two teachers. I know the commitment and price of being a teacher – particularly a good one. If I had known that my husband was going to end up a teacher, I might have run a mile, but when God asks…
“Yes,” I replied. “What do you want to do?” (Thinking this would be a quick visit, like taking someone a bunch of flowers or a meal.)
“Is humankind made in my image?”
In the question was the invitation to move closer to God’s heart, a moment where I could choose to step into love.
“What is my image, Kate?”
I began to write. Pages of words flowed out, like: good, kind, generous, humble, inventive, faithful, trustworthy, patient, wise, forgiving, caring, gracious, compassionate, encouraging, friend…the list went on. As I looked back over it, I felt God say: “My image is the default setting of every human heart. Will you go and call it out in my children?”
Faith and science
Over the next six years I consumed books, lectures and podcasts on psychology, emotional intelligence, neuroscience and childhood development. I studied culture building, wellbeing, counselling techniques and strategies. The more I dived into the research, the more I recognised that, if we really want to support our children, we have to address the deeper issues within our communities – the cultural issues and the values and beliefs that make us tick.
Science has confirmed my understanding of scripture and developed my faith. We are, as Stephen Covey, Brené Brown and a stack load of other researchers, cardiologists, neuroscientists, EQ experts and wellbeing gurus say: “hard-wired for relationship”. Of course we are! Because God is community, relationship, three in one. Our relationships matter, so much so that God asks us to get right with each other before we take communion. It’s so much deeper than it looks on the surface.
WHETHER WE KNOW GOD OR NOT, WE ARE ALL MADE IN GOD’S IMAGE
The research that I have undertaken has changed me deeply. It’s a work of both passion and faith. Passion, because now more than ever our children need support to understand the foundations of healthy relationships, emotional stability and mental safety. The problems we are facing as a society are huge. The statistics on child mental health are scary and our schools – both children and staff – need support.
In the beginning, God spoke.
Words are powerful.
Words define; they shape, form and build. Words find the edges, set the boundaries and give us definition. Words communicate. They build connection, relationships, family, community and culture. Words manifest things that are seen and unseen. Words don’t just define the world around us, they define who we are; the ways we relate to ourselves and to others.
Each one of us is deeply precious and deeply cherished, created in God’s image to express a part of God’s character to the world. You have a particular part to play that can only be lived out by you. The reason Jesus died for us was to give us a way back to life in all wholeness – a way back to being who we are created to be – to restore a relationship where we walk and talk with a living God who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves and who is deeply, passionately engaged with our wholeness.
This wholeness is expressed when we are defined by God’s words, when our values align with the values of God, when our inner narrative tracks with the voice of our good and beautiful God who loved us before we loved him. A God who knows the image we were created in. It’s beautifully put by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:2: “You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.” Our lives are a letter, our conduct a testimony. As Christians, we have this incredible standard given to us: a value system written in words, confirmed by the Spirit and written on our hearts. This is the power and beauty of the living word. It changes us. It creates kingdom on earth.
The Culture of the Heart grew out of the workshops that I had first begun to run in schools to accompany Words and Your Heart. The illustrations in that book help children understand emotion. Pictures can sometimes speak louder than words. Staff saw such an impact on the children that they asked me to write lesson plans based on the sessions. After the first extended trial, a parent wrote to thank the school for using the material. I asked if I could speak to her about the changes she had seen. She said: “Well, ask my daughter.” I turned my attention to the seven-year-old: “What happened in your class when you used The Culture of the Heart?” I asked. She replied: “Even Amelia* got kind.” (*name changed)
OUR RELATIONSHIPS MATTER SO MUCH THAT GOD ASKS US TO GET RIGHT WITH EACH OTHER BEFORE WE TAKE COMMUNION
When I asked the class teacher about Amelia, I discovered that she had very difficult family circumstances and had been the class bully. Over the course of the year, however, she had begun to change. Her understanding of character attributes, emotional intelligence and how to develop relationships had grown. Amelia was kinder and, as a result, was now accepted and liked in her class.
The Culture of the Heart is not a quick fix. It is designed to create sustainable and lasting change by addressing beliefs and value systems and developing resilience. The content helps create safe and relational learning communities. For some children, it was their only safe space. Teachers would regularly be asked: “When is it time for our kind words?” (their name for one of the exercises).
The Culture of the Heart is a whole school, child-led resource. It doesn’t mention Jesus explicitly but I know it carries God’s heart of love into schools. My faith informs the process, and so does science. It’s about liberty and safety for our children but, more than that, it is about our humanity – our intrinsic worth and value as human beings made in the image of a creator God. It is about creating a society where everyone feels safe, loved and connected. It is about building a community where we treat each other with dignity and respect.
Can you imagine a Culture of the Heart in all our schools, churches, workplaces and community spaces? Where all of us – adults and children alike – feel relationally safe, empowered to connect in healthy ways and build community? Where we know we are valuable and worthy of love, and so know that our peers are too? The content reminds us of the beauty that we can all bring to each other and the goodness that we all carry. Whether we know God or not, we are all made in God’s image. And God is good.
Anti-Bullying Week takes place from 15-19 November and has the theme One Kind Word. For more see anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk