A friend remembers her mother trying to teach her and her sibling good manners at the breakfast table when they were young. “What’s the magic word?” their mother asked before sliding pancakes on their plates. The younger sister thought and then answered triumphantly, “Bippity-boppity-boo!”
Well, that was then and this is now. As challenging as it’s always been to teach children to be courteous, many parents think it’s much more difficult today.
In the current climate world, rudeness often reigns. Cyberbullying is all too common. Television reality shows depict backstabbing behaviors and bickering. Politicians—even some of those running for the highest office in our land—hurl insults. Kids observe road rage, toxic interactions on playing fields and in sports arenas—and even in their own homes. (OK—who hasn’t slammed a door or otherwise shown a regrettable lack of restraint or decorum in front of our children at least once?)
An overwhelming majority of Americans across all generations believe that lack of civility is a major societal problem today. And most of us think the problem is only going to worsen, because kids need to see civility modeled in order to learn it and that’s increasingly a tall order. Parents have to work harder than ever, it seems, to teach kids what they need to live peacefully with one another—things like self-awareness and self-control, empathy, an understanding of the importance of thinking not just about ourselves but also about the common good.
Where to begin? Here are a few suggestions.
- When your children witness or observe incivility, don’t miss the opportunity to talk with them about it. Explain why what was said was inappropriate. Encourage them to put themselves in the shoes of the recipient of the mean-spirited words or behavior. Teaching them how to look at the situation through the lens of the other person is one good way to teach empathy.
- Monitor your kids’ media consumption, and balance the incivility they may be seeing in news, TV shows, movies, and video games with good literature. The world is full of excellent books featuring characters who are worthy of emulating. Even fictional characters can model how to treat others with dignity. Don’t underestimate the power of literature to teach your children how to live life well!
- And try to avoid becoming desensitized to incivility. Speak up when you or your children experience or witness it. Sometimes a small incident can teach a big lesson. When some teenagers intentionally cut in front of younger children lined up for a ride at a local fair, an adult spoke to the kids, pointing out that their behavior was rude and asking them to move to the end of the line. The chagrined kids did so, to the murmurs of approval from onlookers. Another mom I know once asked two customers in a reception room to bear in mind that children were present, listening to their conversation, which was peppered with inappropriate language.
Let’s refuse to view mudslinging and name-calling as accepted (and expected) political rhetoric. Write letters to these politicians and public servants. Sign petitions. Use the power of your vote to communicate your disapproval. After all, our children are watching and listening.
Christine French Cully is the editor in chief of Highlights for Children, Inc., where she is responsible for shaping the editorial direction of all the magazines, online content and products the company develops for children and their families. She plays a strategic, ongoing role in the development of the Highlights vision and brand across all markets and channels/around the globe. Cully, a mother of two, resides in Honesdale, Pennsylvania.