Speaking your mind.
Thinking before you speak.
Standing up to peer pressure.
Not saying “butt” so much.
Using good manners.
All parts of my running list of “Big Important Things” I want to teach my children now and in the coming years.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to help my children become well-mannered adults who are confident in speaking their minds and know how to do so appropriately. People who are even-keeled, respectful, and polite without kowtowing or getting steamrolled—you know, “don’t take my kindness for weakness” kind of folks. Like, ideally I’d love to help them mature into polite, non-conformists. The types who show respect to not only authority figures but to every other human being as well yet who are confident enough to disagree if need be, stand up to pressure, and pave their own independent paths. People who speak intelligently but not condescendingly, which implies they respect their audience, have empathy, and understand that the person on the other end of the conversation has equally valid thoughts and opinions, even though they may be in complete opposition. I want them to be people who hold doors open and use some old-school manners here and there but who understand that politeness is not a weakness, that you can still speak and act firmly and go against the grain without having to act tough and be overly aggressive.
I want them to be people who aren’t jerks.
But I’m worried that attaining these goals is going to become increasingly difficult as my children get older.
I suppose the easiest way to encourage good behaviors is to lead by example and try my best to model what I’d like my kids to learn while rewarding their positive behavior and discouraging the negative. And I imagine it’s easier to do this now while they’re of preschool age and generally show me at least a modicum of respect and are not yet screaming, “You life ruiner! Why did you make eye contact with me when you dropped me off at school? Can’t you see my friends were watching?!”
But it’s the tween and teen years when I don’t want all my efforts negated by my children’s exposure to things I don’t have as much control of, like what they read, listen to, and watch and who they hang out with or feel compelled to emulate. (I realize that some of those things can be somewhat monitored by open communication and awareness; however, no parent can or should want to try to run their children’s lives entirely, and it’s nearly impossible to know what they’re up to and what’s going on in their brains 100% of the time.)
And I’m honestly not as worried about them not absorbing basic manners or tossing them out the window in their older years. We live in the South. I’m pretty sure my son and daughter will know how to say “please” and “thank you” and not show up drunk wearing cut offs and a mesh shirt to a baby shower. It’s their exposure over time to what has become the pervasive voice and tone of much of our TV, radio, print, and Internet interaction that really concerns me.
Maybe it’s me, but a majority of popular mass media today—whether it’s related to news, humor, entertainment, sports, whathaveyou—seems overrun with shouting, finger-pointing, name-calling, snark, and cheap insults. Yet, I don’t think that’s reflective of how most people communicate regularly on an interpersonal level. The snark on the Internet that has become the pervasive voice of online writing is the most frustrating to me. Sure, at times it can be entertaining (within reason and in moderation), but too much is overkill and unimaginative writing. And the level of online vitriol and YELLING is maybe worse than what you see on TV or hear on talk radio.
Are we really so angry these days that we feel the need to roll our eyes and criticize everything and everyone? Are we really that disgusted by everything and have so much free time that we feel the need to call in to radio and TV shows and make rude remarks to degrade the guests and hosts or post terrible comments and cheap insults in online forums to people we don’t even know? Is it because we like the quick high from venting and temporarily thinking we’ve one-upped someone (which, by the way, is a completely insecure, narcissistic thing to do)? Is it because we like the attention or enjoy stirring up other people? Do we get off on being jerks? Or are we really just that hateful and intolerant and completely unable to enjoy anything today without falling into a trap of sarcasm and snark?
It worries me that when we begin to think as jerks and view others as caricatures, we remove our sensitivity and empathy. We become unfeeling and can’t relate anymore. Making fun of anything and anyone is fair game, no matter the means, the cost, or how hurtful. What terribly negative and potentially dangerous behavior for our children to learn and mimic.
As my kids grow up and watch more TV, listen to more radio, and engage increasingly online, I don’t want them absorbing this atypical, ratings-grabbing tone and delivery style of today’s mass media and thinking it’s an acceptable, normal way for people to behave. I don’t want them to think that just because certain behaviors get laughs or applause or jack up site stats or a bazillion views online that those are behaviors to imitate. I don’t want them to think that to be funny they have to take cheap shots at people. I don’t want them to think that to prove a point they need to resort to unduly aggressive tactics like shouting and interrupting the other speaker. I don’t want them to become numb to yelling and snark and sarcasm and general tackiness. I don’t want them to speak, write, or process information that way simply because their brains have absorbed it, because I don’t think that particular voice is positive or healthy to retain over time.
I’m not saying I want my kids to avoid electricity and churn butter until they’re 30 and I release them from an underground bunker, nor am I suggesting we all need to take ourselves off the grid. I just think we are bombarded today with negativity, and with our increasing reliance on technology we’re reading it and hearing it and taking it in all day, every day. And it’s toxic.
Just as awful is the fact that we are missing so much taking place in real life because the phone is ever-present or the TV is always on. These are also behaviors that add to the numbing aspect, even for adults. If we’re getting acclimated to language and behaviors that we wouldn’t want our children to absorb, then we need to be proactive in remembering to tune out of electronic media and tune in to just absorbing what is real, pertinent, and important to us. Tune out the noise and tune in to ourselves, our families and friends, and the plain, old, natural world around us.
(P.S. This does not mean I will go cold turkey and stop cussing, watching The Daily Show, writing something on Facebook about Lindsay Lohan, or praying for a three-hour morning show featuring Perez Hilton, Nancy Grace, and the ghost of Joan Rivers. I mean, let’s be reasonable here. It just means I recognize those things aren’t healthy behaviors; I’m going to make an effort not to indulge my brain in them quite so often; and I’m certainly not going to introduce or expose my children to them. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to mail a thank you note, delete some choice sites from my bookmarks, and try to be less of a jerk.)
**If you want to read an AMAZING article, check out The Snarky Voice in Your Head is Killing Your Productivity; Here’s How to Stop It.