Embracing Civility in the Age of Entitlement

When schools and families unite to take on the charge of educating children, they eventually come to the realization that the lasting lessons lie outside of textbooks and class assignments. Real world survival isn’t solely based on whether or not a person can actually read the signs along the journey and calculate the miles to a destination. What counts is how a person takes that journey, who s/he encounters along the way, and what happens during each encounter. Without the necessary skills for navigating the social landscape, our children can’t truly be ready for the real world, and no amount of money, education or bling will help them grow into good people.

The hidden curriculum for raising children involves striking a balance between meeting their needs and helping them to understand that every need doesn’t have to be met. Though we might be able to provide our children with things that they believe they need, it doesn’t mean that we should provide them. Owning an iPod, iTouch or iPad doesn’t guarantee that a child will be a good person. Wearing clothing items and accessories from a popular store or participating in the most desired extra-curricular activities won’t assure that a child will grow into a well-rounded, respectful citizen. As parents, our children’s happiness is a top priority. Because we desperately want that happiness for them, we sometimes follow the misguided notion that we can buy that happiness with things. We live with the false impression that because they want these things, they should have them. So, if we as parents can afford them, why shouldn’t our children get what they want? The answer is disturbing: as our children acquire more and more “stuff,” they develop a sense of entitlement that is a sure sign that they are off-course on that journey toward being a good person.

In my earlier blogposts, I’ve stressed how important it is for adults to actively model positive behaviors for children. We started the school year with a conversation about modeling an “attitude of gratitude”–acknowledging the fact that we rely on others to do things for us. Just a word of kindness and gratitude shows them that we appreciate the gift, whether it’s tangible or not. Later in the fall, I challenged parents to model realistic expectations and outline boundaries for children in order to create respectful and responsive cooperative relationships. In the New Year, modeling intention instead of resolution was the topic at hand. This led us into the early months of 2012, when ideas about modeling organization were combined with the need to remain flexible. A discussion about modeling effective communication and friendship skills led us into spring, when I posted the need to model resilience and surviving change and disappointment for our children. This brings us up to date, when the challenge before us is to turn our backs on the ease of entitlement in order to embrace and model civility.

Just because we can do something, get something, have something, or say something, it doesn’t have to be so. We can make the conscious choice to do the right thing: to be civil. Granted: it’s not easy—given our adult tendencies toward urgent demands, immediate gratification, and our sense of how things should be. Just recall the last time a driver cut you off on the Beltway, or someone stepped in front of you at the deli counter. Why was that driver’s need to be in front of you so important? How was that person’s deli order more important than yours? What about the shopper who put 20 items on the check-out belt in the grocery store express lane? Why was that okay? And consider the individual who parked in the fire lane or in a handicapped parking space to run in for a quick cup of coffee? Why did the rules not apply to her? Think about the last time you were annoyed or angry with another individual with whom you disagreed. The last time your desires or expectations weren’t met to your satisfaction. The last time your sense of right wasn’t immediately accepted and your directives weren’t followed. These were all opportunities to practice civility; and if a child was present, these were opportunities to model civility. It sounds simple; yet it’s not.

Civility reaches beyond the Golden Rule. It’s one thing to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s quite another thing to make a choice to do the right thing, even when you feel wronged, or when you know that you may not receive equally respectful treatment in return. Does that mean we have to rely on the old axiom, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all”? More likely, it involves making conscious choices, some of which push us outside of our comfort zone. Because we live in a time of accessibility, availability, and immediacy, it is easy to reach the conclusion that if we want something or need something, it must happen now. We believe that if we demand it, it must be so. Sadly, sometimes that strong sense of urgency guides us off-course, away from civility and into the realm of entitlement: closer to modeling negative social behaviors for our children.

Granted: it is not easy to teach a child to always make good choices. It’s so much more complicated than that, especially given the world our children live in with aggressive media influence and societal expectations that push our children into developmental stages beyond their years. How do we teach them the hidden curriculum? How do we teach civility? Can we teach a child to show regard for others and their feelings? We don’t want to raise passive kids who never advocate for themselves. That said, we don’t want our children to be pushovers and bystanders in their lives. We want them to actively and appropriately engage in their interactions with others, and we want those interactions to be healthy reflections of their ability to empathize with others.

The parts of civility that include being polite, courteous, and demonstrating good manners are a bit easier to explain and demonstrate for children. It is definitely less complicated to teach kids that being civil means making a conscious choice to not be rude. It’s not only what you say, but how you say it. Yet, how do we teach them that being civil also means considering others, understanding that each individual’s very presence is worthy of their time, consideration and respect? How can we guide them to acknowledge and listen to others; to respectfully disagree; and to share “air-time” in conversations? Is it possible to teach them to step away from the need to have the last word and take a detour away from meanness and sarcasm? This circles back to the realization that just because we can doesn’t mean that we should. It involves teaching and actively modeling conscious choices.

At the core of civility lies kindness, as well as the idea that everyone that we encounter is deserving of our consideration and regard. Kindness is complex. It incorporates all of the skills and behaviors that I’ve blogged about this school year. It requires gratitude, respect, and responsibility. It demands intention, organization and cooperation with others. It involves flexibility and resilience, surviving disappointment and change. Most of all, it involves making an effort to understand and acknowledge another person’s point of view, and with that knowledge, making a conscious choice to be civil. That hidden curriculum is something we are all entitled to and lessons we can all learn together.

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