We talk about Chang Kung, kindness, and the Golden Rule

At about 11:15, five children and two teachers left the worship service in the Main Hall and gathered in Room 4/5 here at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto to begin a new Sunday school year together. Two of the children were returning from last year’s 11:00 Sunday school class for grades 1-6. The other three children were in class for the first time: two of them were new to our church, and all three had older siblings attending the meeting of the senior high youth group which meets at 11:00.

As soon as we sat down around the table, I took attendance. My friends Dorit and Lisa were back, both looking older and taller. The newcomers were the twins Ian and Edie, both of whom just moved here from Rhode Island, and Bert, who used to come at 9:30. [All names and identifying details are disguised to protect the privacy of the children.] Lucy, my co-teacher, who teaches high school for a profession, sat directly across from me. I lit the flaming chalice, and read some opening words. The class is open to any child in grades 1 through 6, and in case there were older children, I had chosen somewhat challenging opening words, and put them on a handout (PDF file of the handout). Here are the opening words:

Zi gong [one of Confucius’ students] asked: {Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?”
The Master said: “Is not RECIPROCITY such a word: what you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others?”

As it happened, the children in the class were all in second through fourth grades, so I wanted to make sure they understood something of what the words on the handout meant. They had never heard the word “reciprocity” before, so we practiced trying to say it together. I told them that in Chinese it was a short word, “shu,” and they could all say that (though I explained that we probably weren’t pronouncing it quite right). And I said that what the word means is “what you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”

“The Golden Rule,” said Edie. I asked her to tell us the Golden Rule, and she said, “Do to other people what you want them to do to you.” This led to a discussion about the Golden Rule.

During the opening sharing circle, we went around the circle twice. The first time, you could say the best thing that happened to you over the summer, or you could pass. The second time around, you could say one good thing and one bad thing that happened to you in the past week, or you could pass. The first time around, Ian and Lisa both passed, and Bert had little to say. By the second time around, the children were feeling more comfortable, and four of the five had something to share.

I had another handout for the children: a sheet of paper with the phrase “Under the sky all people are one family” written in English and also translated into fifteen other languages. We tried to figure out what all the languages were. “I don’t know any of them,” I said. “I do,” said Bert, “this one is in English.” We all laughed, and realized we all did know at least one of the languages. After we had made some guesses, I showed everyone the answer key, and we saw that the phrase was written in Aramaic, Italian, German, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Hebrew, Urdu, Chinese, Japanese, Greek, Czech, Burmese, Baganda, Tamil, and Arabic.

“Now I’d like to read you a story,” I said. Lucy and I got markers and paper so the children could draw while I was reading. I read “The Picture on the Kitchen Wall” from the book From Long Ago and Many Lands, an old Unitarian Universalist curriculum book by Sophia L. Fahs (Boston: Beacon, 1948, 1st ed., p. 3; you can preview the 2nd ed. online at Google Books). The story centers on Chang Kung, who lived in China in ancient times, Chang Kung’s very large household was a very happy household in which no one ever quarreled or scolded. The point of the story is that any household that has kindness as its governing principle will be a happy household, with very little quarreling or scolding.

The story led to a good discussion. All the children said that there was quarreling at their house, particularly with their siblings. Lisa is an only child, so I asked if the children had ever been scolded by their parents, and they all said that they had (Ian said he got in trouble “lots”). They were interested to think of a household in which there was no quarreling, a household in which not even the dogs fought each other over bones. Edie thought that “kindness,” as it was meant in this story, was like the Golden Rule.

“Do you think this is a really true story, or a fairy tale story?” I said. There were mixed opinions, so I asked those who thought it was a really true story to raise their hands. Three of the children raised their hands. Then I asked who thought it was a fairy tale story, and Lucy and one of the children raised their hands. Bert muttered, “Maybe…” so I quickly said, “Who thinks it’s maybe true?” Lucy said that when she heard Bert say “Maybe,” she changed her mind, and now voted for maybe, and some of the other children changed their votes, too. I pointed out that the book said that Chang Kung was a real person, but we all agreed that the story took place so long ago that no one could be sure if it had all happened quite the way it was in the story. “Maybe they quarreled once in a while,” said Dorit, “but not very often,” and everyone seemed to agree with that.

I told the children that we are going to be together in Sunday school class for the rest of the year, and I said we might want to think about how we are going to treat each other. If Chang Kung’s household was run on kindness, could we do the same? Would one word be enough?

Edie brought up the Golden Rule again, and we spent some time talking about the Golden Rule. We thought about different ways of saying it, and finally Edie summed it up best: Treat other people the way you would like to be treated. I asked who had good handwriting, and Lisa and a couple of other children raised their hands. I thought Lisa’s hand went up first, so I asked her to write down our version of the Golden Rule, and she did. We all watched as she wrote. Then we all went over to our class’ bulletin board, and put up our version of the Golden Rule. Some of the children also were willing to have the drawings they had done put up on the bulletin board.

I had hoped to spend some time doing meditation with the children, but we were running out of time. So I suggested that maybe they could show their parents the sheet with all the languages on it, and see if their parents knew any of the languaes besides English. That meant they had to copy down the answer key, and Bert and Ian, both eager to stump their parents with such a difficult puzzle, did so.

We had our closing circle. I asked the children what we had done today. We were a little rushed, and I ended it quickly. “It was good to see you all,” I said. “See you next week!”


(a) Traditionally, Confucius’ birthday is celebrated on September 28. However, I decided I was trying to pack enough into this lesson as it was, so I did not bring this up with the children.

Question for reflection

(a) I tried to plan this lesson so it could be adapted to a wide range of ages (grades 1-6, or ages 6-11). Assuming a sixth grader had showed up, would there have been enough in this lesson to keep him or her engaged? What other activities could I have planned to keep older children engaged?