By kindergarten, most kids know the difference between “nice” and “mean.” They still know it by the time they get to middle school. And all high school students can tell you how awful it feels to be treated unkindly. And yet, kids are often disrespectful to their peers and their parents.
Why this disconnect between knowing what’s right and doing what’s right? Part of the explanation is the fact that our children are growing up in a Culture of Cruelty. That sounds harsh, but we can’t change what we don’t see. Consider what passes for entertainment in the media. It’s often mean-spirited. So are many of the conversations we have at the office, on the sidelines at the game, and in the teachers lounge. Character assassination in public discourse is pretty much the air we breathe. So are put downs, gossip, and snarkiness. The resulting pollution is a hazard to our well-being. It’s also a huge problem for parents who want to raise nice kids who do good in the world.
Our kids are good kids. They really are! But they are also constantly challenged by the less-than-compassionate standards of their peers with whom they are mind-linked 24/7. Today’s t(w)eens suffer from status anxiety at levels no other generation has endured. This compels them to do whatever it takes to fit in, including things they are not particularly proud of. Despite these challenges, we can teach our kids to be people with good intentions and social courage, i.e., the ability and the will to do the right thing.
Adults who live and work with kids often give lip service to the importance of teaching young people to do the right thing. But how much actual teaching is being done at home and at school? If we don’t prioritize character development, we’re failing our kids. We can do better.
Here is a simple way to get the ball rolling in the right direction:
1. Talk with your child. Have a friendly conversation about the concept of a “pecking order” in the animal kingdom. Maybe you’ve observed two dogs or two cats at close range. Often it’s clear which animal is “dominant” or “bossy” and which is more submissive. Talk about how there can also be a pecking order amongst people. We usually feel uncomfortable when we are on the bottom, getting bossed around. But when we’re not on the bottom, we don’t often give much thought to those who are.
2. Listen to your child. Ask your son/daughter about who is on the bottom at school. (Even kids as young as second or third grade have a keen awareness of social strata.) Ask, “Why do you think s/he’s on the bottom? How do other people treat that child? How do you treat him/her? What might happen if you stood up for that child?
3. Challenge your child to be a hero. Encourage him/her to shake up the pecking order by standing up for someone who needs a friend. Take the challenge yourself!
4. Follow up. In a week, have another friendly conversation with your child and share what happened on the challenge. Discuss whether you want to keep the challenge going.
We parents are gardeners. We plant seeds and nurture those seeds through conversations, modeling, and real world experiences. Of course, we are not our children’s only influencers but we can provide the tools they need to do the right thing, online and off. Whether they actually step up, is their choice. But at least we’ll know we’ve done our part well.