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Feel Good Alert: This 14 Year-Old is Making Change Happen

Wuf Shanti.  If you are anything like me, one of your first thoughts might be along the lines of “Good God, can Disney license and franchise the dharma?  Turn its purveyor into a trite, hackneyed character (caricature)?”

That response, while not unfounded, says more about me (us?) than about Wuf Shanti, or the foundation that evolved around this character.
Admittedly, Wuf is a friendly dog-character, does delight children and does represent key aspects of the dharma:  kindness, compassion and an end to violence.

But this character is not the brainchild of a conglomerate; the ‘next best thing’ dreamt up by a multi-national corporation with a lock on books, movies, school binders, Halloween costumes etc. Rather, Wuf Shanti emerged from the grief of 10-year-old Adam Avin, who wanted to honor his great-grandpa Jack when he passed.  Heavy-hearted, Adam did what many kids do when faced with overwhelming circumstances—he drew.  And his drawings (of his much loved puppy) paid homage to Jack through their captions, which reiterated some of Jack’s oft-repeated advices, including “Think Well to Be Well,” and “Smile and the World Will Smile With You.”

With mom’s help, this series of drawings became a storyboard, then a book with a rhyming narrative. My Grand-dog was a Yoga Instructor captured, for posterity, the wisdom of a beloved great-grandfather, and started Adam’s family down the road to a peaceable, mental health foundation, the Wuf Shanti Children’s Wellness Foundation.

Today, Adam is a High School freshman who has outgrown the Wuf costume, literally and figuratively.  Yet, as a young adult who lives just beyond the pale of Parkland (where, on Valentine’s Day 2018, a shooter claimed 17 lives and left countless others injured and traumatized at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School), Adam is intent on translating Wuf into teachings that support non-violence and promote mental health for both primary and secondary school students. Toward that end, Adam formed the Kids Association for Mindfulness in Education (KAME), which has spawned the much anticipated Mindful Kids Peace Summit (Feb 11-15, 2019). The summit is the first-ever week-long social emotional learning (SEL) program geared to teens, and will be broadcast in middle and high schools across the globe.

When I caught up with Adam after the holidays, I specifically wanted to know about his experiences with bullying, and how they might have shaped him. (In my mind, Wuf seems a likely target for the ridicule of pre-adolescents, who incessantly push boundaries—especially against anything that hints of ‘babyish.’) I was completely unprepared for Adam to deny having been bullied.

Taking a different tack, I pressed for details about the middle school incarnation of Wuf.

Instead of hearing about teasing over the dog costume (or taunting for his continuously up-beat positive attitude) the question prompted Adam to talk about his middle school peer counseling class. He took pride and pleasure in expounding on a conflict mediation curriculum (in his public school) that taught young people the skill sets necessary to begin negotiating their own struggles. Adam noted that what most surprised him about being part of this initiative was “the realization of how many kids really want to work out social entanglements.”
(Nonetheless, Adam was clear that not all situations were amenable to peer mediation. For example, “those between two kids that seem extremely personal.”  Young people, he shared, “would not get in the middle of something that was caught up with a lot of private stuff between two kids.”  This may signal the point at which, as educators know, peer mediation can break down, and mediators themselves become the target of peer pressure).

Once we were talking about conflict, it was easier to re-introduce the question of bullying. Adam responded by admitting some peers have ridiculed the costume, but simply said “If a kid makes fun of me for the dog costume, I try to laugh because comedy helps, and if they know their comments don’t bother me, they’ll drop it.”  Sage insight for an, at the time, middle school student.

Adam explained that this mental stance was the key legacy of his great-grandpa Jack, (who, by the way, was not a yoga teacher, mindfulness coach, or positive psychologist). One of his oft-repeated statements to his great-grandson was “Smile and say ‘thank you’ no matter what someone says.” In this way, you acknowledge the aggressor, deflate the situation, and can walk away with a smile.

Admit it though, I pressed, “It is often not easy to smile, let alone laugh.”

Adam parried with some heavy-handed positive psychology: “Even if you are sad or upset, make yourself laugh. Our bodies don’t know that the laughing is fake, and our bodies think we are happy, and that helps our overall health.” 

I cannot speak to the verity of that statement, neurologically, nor can I engage the critiques of positive psychology, but what I can say is that the way this character has grown—taking up meditation, breathing, and a mantra of “think well to be well”—has set an emotional and behavioral example for children and young adults, whose anti-bullying school cultures are impoverished when it comes to implementing informal social-emotional learning skills.

Importantly, Wuf Shanti’s programs can get into schools through STEM programs, which are aligned with their curricular emphasis.   As Adam noted “because science has shown that mindfulness practices and social emotional learning help with academics and focus and sports, and also what we feel about ourselves, how we interact with others, and our physical and mental health, we can bring these into schools.”

These days, Wuf appears in videos and on the Children’s TV Network in hospitals around the world, has his own mindful mobile app (the Wuf Shanti Yoga Fun Machine) and YouTube Channel, and has spawned 6 additional books as well as an SEL curriculum aimed at older youth (which teaches them how to deal with stress and cope with emotions, how to self-regulate, better communicate, and better interact with others.) Featured in the Huffington PostLA Yoga Magazine, goop Magazine, and (to name a few), and endorsed by celebrities such as Adam Levine and Maroon 5, Wuf Shanti seems a character we need to become better acquainted with in 2019.

* Register your school–the Mindful Kids Peace Summitis free if watched on the day(s) it is happening. The summit will have more than 50 experts speaking on topics such as diversity, inclusion, communication, kindness, anti-bullying, positive psychology, mindfulness, and making the world a better place for the next generation. Teachers will receive resources with discussion points or activities to help them continue exploring the topics with their students after the summit.

About the Author: Laura Martocci, Ph.D., is a former associate dean of Wagner College, who currently consults on school action plans and social-emotional learning initiatives.