TEACHING VALUES TO OUR CHILDREN: Don’t Do As I do, Do As I Say!

If you happen to visit classrooms in public and private elementary schools in this country, you would (I hope) be pleased to see that in addition to academic subjects, our impressionable young children are being taught to be “Mensch’n,” a Yiddish word referring to people who are respectful, caring, kind, generous and trustworthy.

Our children are receiving lessons in civility, or humanistic social values. They’re learning about being respectful and tolerant, kind and cooperative with one another. There are posters, songs, readings and discussions encouraging children to live, work and play together harmoniously. Likewise, students are discouraged from negative behaviors, like selfishness, bullying or fighting.

Young children’s books are replete with heartwarming stories, of lessons learned, where misbehavior is punished and kindness and empathy carry the day.

These same social values are promoted in middle schools and high schools, and in colleges, there are clearly enunciated  expectations for respect, tolerance and empathy, and rules outlining punishments for antagonistic interactions.

So it seems that we are interested in inculcating our children and youth with the basic message that decency and civility are core parts of our social and ethical values.

For the most part, we’ve been successful in this endeavor: The vast majority of our young citizens adhere to an implicit “social contract” based on mutual courtesy, tolerance, and respect. We have declared explicitly that we want a civil society (freedom from want or fear, pursuit of happiness, etc.)

However, too often our children and youth are in their daily lives exposed to examples of the very opposite of civility. Public incivility and rudeness are ubiquitous and seemingly increasing.

They see and hear nastiness evinced by television and radio commentators who launch angry diatribes against their targets. They witness uncivil behavior in the everyday life: Disrespectful, angry outbursts and interactions pervade our society, and rudeness and disrespect are frequently seen in our neighborhoods, in retail shops, in the streets and in businesses.

They also see some of the vicious bullying and trolling currently prevalent on the internet, where anonymity gives angry people the license to be crude, malicious and hateful.

And there is of course our political arena, where loud conflict and enmity have been front and center for years, and especially so recently, when the primaries and the election were filled with incredible incivility, vitriol and vilification.

After being barraged by myriad examples of anger, threats, bloviating, lying, selfishness and narcissism – all the antitheses of civility – what are our children and youth to conclude?

What was it again that we wish to teach our children and youth? Let’s see: Was it respect, politeness and empathy? Kindness, generosity and cooperation? Was it tolerance, benevolence and mutual appreciation?

 What are WE to conclude?!

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