Giving children the emotional skills they need for healthier lives
By Allan Richter
When Goldie Hawn appeared at the South by Southwest media and culture conference in March, the Academy Award winner wasn’t on hand to speak about her string of comedic roles in films like the iconic “Private Benjamin,” her Oscar-winning supporting role in “Cactus Flower” or more dramatic turns in “Butterflies Are Free” and “Sugarland Express.” Nor was she at the Austin conference to wax poetic about her giggly, bikini-clad persona on television’s “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” which thrust her into the national consciousness in the late 1960s.
Instead, in a talk entitled “Brain-Focused Strategies for Living and Learning,” Hawn paced the South by Southwest stage in a black pantsuit and high heels, railing against the torrent of negative images with which children and adults, but mostly children, are flooded by the media. “We instill fear in our children,” Hawn said onstage. “Just as we instill joy, positive thinking, we instill fear. Our children matter. More than anything in the whole world they matter, because they are going to inherit what we have laid out for them. And if we don’t take charge and make a commitment we are going to lose them.”
The actress has embraced the role of education activist—a part of her life she says “is perhaps the most exciting”—since she launched her Hawn Foundation 12 years ago. With a team of educators, neuroscientists, professionals versed in positive psychology and experts in “mindful” awareness training, Hawn created MindUp, a school curriculum that promotes social and emotional literacy skills. The Hawn Foundation’s signature initiative, MindUp has been adopted by schools on five continents.
On the South by Southwest stage, Hawn, looking fit at 69, paused to demonstrate how the program educates children about the workings of the brain so they better understand—and control—their behavior. She turned to address four student avatars, cartoons really, on an overhead screen.
“What did you learn about the brain and what it does?” Hawn asked, addressing Sean, a student avatar wearing glasses and a green-and-white plaid shirt.
“It’s really cool because you’ve got your frontal cortex, and that’s the big thinking part, and then there’s the hippocampus, and that’s a funny name; I like that one.” Struggling to remember another part of the brain, Sean gets harried and begins to unravel. Hawn encourages him to take a breather. “The amygdala!” the student shouts with self-congratulatory glee.
“Yes, exactly, the amygdala,” Hawn responds. “Because that’s the emotional part of the brain, isn’t it? And sometimes that gets all frenzied, and we can’t remember.”
Growing up in a duplex house on a dead-end street in Takoma Park, Maryland, Hawn says she did not face the kind of stress that today’s children endure. Her mother ran a dance school and jewelry store, while her father was a musician who played in every inaugural since FDR. “I was a happy child,” she told the National Press Club two years ago.
Hawn recalled the basement in the intermediate school she attended in Silver Spring, Maryland, that housed classrooms for special needs students. On her first day at the school, she befriended a boy named Barney who became her best friend. “He could hardly speak but he smiled all the time,” Hawn recounted. The friendship lasted through the sixth grade.
In art class, when she was asked to draw a picture of a grouping of fruit, Hawn colored all the fruit yellow, whether it was an apple, a banana or grapes, she told the National Press Club. Confronted by the teacher, she simply said she likes yellow. “That was the first inclination that I didn’t follow direction all that well,” she said.
Other children would bring home a book for their reading group, but she didn’t because she was deemed among the poorer readers. “That didn’t stop me from asserting my personality. Even though I didn’t finish all my homework and papers, I signed them all, ‘Love, Goldie.’”
Hawn was tested and found to have a high IQ. “It didn’t help my reading. It didn’t help my retention,” she said. “And therefore it was an indication that I was mildly dyslexic.”
She was the butt of cruel jokes and faced anti-Semitism. “I was Jewish, and I got teased,” she said. “I had resilience because I had parents who cared. And I knew I was proud to be Jewish. I was teased because I was flat-chested and skinny, but that was okay because my mother said, ‘You just wait.’”
“I went along in my school, and I was a very sensitive child,” Hawn told the Press Club. “But I was building other things. I was building other levels of resilience, other talents. No, I was not going to be a rocket scientist. I was not going to be some of those things that parents think their children are going to be because my parents knew what I could do. I could dance. I could enjoy life. And they didn’t want to be the ones who would stop me from progressing, from feeling good about myself, to do the things I could do and to work at my strengths.”
Cold War Fears Revisited
One day when she was in sixth grade, Hawn visited the school’s audiovisual room, a place most students associated with fun because it meant time out of class. Typically the students would watch a film. Instead of the farming film Hawn thought she would see that day, on screen Hawn saw a mysterious black circle, followed by a countdown: 9…8...7…6…, then a huge crash. It was an atomic bomb explosion.
Innocence ended. It was the Cold War. “What I saw changed my life forever,” Hawn says of the images of mothers and children crying, scenes of blood and annihilation.
Until that point, life had been about jumping in leaf piles or lying on the grass and looking at cloud formations. No one ever locked a door. Kids would sit on a stoop. They walked to school and back home again.
“I was a good sleeper,” Hawn recalled. “Life was good. It was all wonderful. We played till dark, and got called in to dinner. Until this happened...My brain had imprinted this horrible scenario, and it stayed there till I ended high school. I couldn’t hear a siren without going into panic attacks.”
Fast-forward to September 11, 2001. Hawn was getting her child ready for school when the images of the Twin Towers crumbling came across the TV screen.
Later, Hawn says, “I wept for our children because I knew that they were going to inherit a world that would change forever,” Hawn told the Press Club. “Their little worlds were going to change forever, just as our world had changed forever. All I could think of was: What are our children going to do? What are they going to inherit? They’re watching this news over and over again. These children’s brains are being processed and processing this constant falling and falling and falling. They don’t know this is not happening 1,000 times.”
For the next two years, Hawn pondered meditation, positive psychology, and social and emotional learning, or SEL, a process giving children and adults the skills to manage emotions, achieve positive goals, feel empathy for others and make responsible decisions. She drew upon those various streams of thought to help establish MindUp. SEL was coined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a Chicago organization that would later endorse the Hawn Foundation’s efforts.
At the heart of MindUp is the philosophy known as mindfulness, popular in meditation, that Hawn and her team blended with scientific principles. Hawn defines mindfulness in her 2011 book 10 Mindful Minutes: Giving Our Children—and Ourselves—the Social and Emotional Skills to Reduce Stress and Anxiety for Healthier, Happier Lives (Perigee): “The practice of being mindful of one’s awareness, feelings and senses.”
Though mindfulness is rooted in Buddhism—and the title of Hawn’s 2005 memoir, A Lotus Grows in the Mud (G.P. Putnam), conjures Buddhist imagery—Hawn told her National Press Club audience that her involvement with MindUp “had nothing to do with Buddhism. I’m Jewish.” Indeed, though mindfulness, like yoga, is rooted in Eastern religion, it has been adopted as a more mainstream and broader self-help type of practice.
Results of an initial test of MindUp, conducted by Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, PhD, of the University of British Columbia, were cause for optimism. Participants showed better reading scores, less absenteeism, better attention and more concentration, as well as signs of managing their stress better. In addition, they showed a 63% rise in optimism. And, although the researchers weren’t searching for this dynamic, they reported a 25% reduction in playground aggression.
In addition to learning how their brain functions, students who take the extended lessons of the MindUp curriculum take daily “brain breaks” and focus on breathing, consider the differences between optimism and pessimism, and learn to “savor” happiness, Hawn says in 10 Mindful Minutes.
These are the kind of mind-expanding practices that Hawn herself seems more than open to in her own life because of the new, untraveled roads they lead her to. “I’m filled with such joy and excitement at the prospect of new opportunities for this perhaps most interesting segment of my life’s blessed journey,” she wrote in A Lotus Grows in the Mud. “Every day I ask myself, wondering aloud, ‘What does the future hold for you now, Goldie Hawn?’ And the best thing of all is, I just don’t know.”