Unless you’ve been living in a cave the last few weeks, you are certainly all too aware of the horrific images of violent school-based incidents constantly playing in every possible media outlet. Teens luring a cheerleader classmate to a home and beating her repeatedly while the video camera rolls; a teacher being assaulted in her classroom by students; a high-schooler throwing a metal chair at another in class knocking the victim unconscious; a 13-year middle schooler who admits that he planned to shoot up his school because he was being bullied.
But what is even more worrisome than these events is that they are occurring in children that are increasingly younger in age! Just a few weeks ago, third graders were caught planning to blow up their school, and children as young as kindergarten are harassed, abused, and tormented. This epidemic also doesn’t discriminate: girls are just as likely to be involved as boys, and it crosses all socio-economic and cultural boundaries. When our children today, on average, stand a one-in-four chance to being victims of school-based violence before they reach high-school, we parents need to do something to help our children survive the war zones our classrooms and schoolyards have become.
First, ask why?
Before we can find effective solutions to the problem, we have to ask ourselves why it exists in the first place. While many people jump to place blame on divided households, families with multiple workers outside the home, cultural differences, de-emphasis on religion, socio-economic inequity and more, none of these "causes" really address the underlying problem. For whatever reason, our kids are not coming to school – or to life – equipped with the social skills and character development that enables them to successfully navigate life’s challenges. Many children today exist in a purely self-centered universe where they believe they are somehow entitled to "their fair share" and more, and that if it’s ok with them, it should be fine for the rest of the world.
Babies are born being completely ego-centric little beings, and they must be so at first in order to survive. But, as they grow, children need to learn that although they are the apples of their parents’ eyes, the sun doesn’t quite rise and set by them; there are other people in the world who are just as deserving of attention, care, and consideration as they are. The popular practice over the last decade or so that has parents abandoning boundaries and rules in order to foster their child’s self-esteem has actually back-fired. Over time, children need to learn that it is important, sometimes critical, to put the needs and desires of others first before their own whims and wants.
"Treat others the way you want them to treat you," also sometimes referred to as The Golden Rule, is the cornerstone of every good social skill, courteous behavior, and positive character element. While many people think these things are just "good manners," in reality good social skills are much more.
More than Just Manners
While having decent manners are important, you have to understand that "manners" really refers primarily to outward behaviors. But, to truly be successful in our personal interactions with others, we have to be sure that our intentions for those behaviors are in line with our actions. If we only "act" a specific way when it benefits us, – for example, by complimenting a boss we really can’t stand – we can be someone with perfectly proper behavior, yet still be a proper jerk. When we are truly motivated to be courteous and gracious to someone because we respect them and care about them as people, our entire demeanor conveys that we are a person of decent moral character as well as showing good conduct.
For our kids, these skills are not just a "nice to have," an add-on we "train" them in as we have time. Repeated studies show that good social skills are the primary factor in a child’s future success, and are possibly even more important than popular factors such as education, socio-economic background, or the "who you know" network combined. Think about it: it doesn’t matter how smart you are or where you come from, if you can’t get along with others, how successful do you think you’ll really be?
And their Lives May Depend on It!
Truly, the ability to successfully share space and interact with others is becoming a lost art. When popular media and mass marketing continually touts that "it’s all about you," how do we operate as a community and not as disjointed islands of humanity? While we preach "political correctness," the reality is that we tend to focus over-much on differences and not similarities. The buzzword of the day is "tolerance," and not "acceptance." Is it a wonder that we stand so often as "us against them?"
It is critical that we help our children learn to be a little more understanding, a little more patient, and a lot more compassionate with the people around them. Maybe if we teach them that sometimes the best course of action during a disagreement is to simply admit there is no common ground and to walk away, we wouldn’t need so many counselors, mediators…and downstream, legal defense! If we became better at moderating our words and actions, we could avoid a conflict before it even got to that point. Maybe our children would realize that it’s NOT OK to lure someone into a house and beat them up on camera to "get even" for a snarky remark posted on the Internet? Even better, maybe they’d even appreciate that the snarky remark is often best kept to oneself.
It’s not a lost cause – YET. If enough people return to a way of thinking that emphasizes positive behavior and positive thinking, we can make a difference in our families, our schools, our communities. We have an opportunity to make this a kinder, gentler world for our kids and their kids to grow up in. Maybe one in which 25% aren’t headed to be a statistic. I think we owe them that. Teach them the three R’s (Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic) and then add those extras Rs --Respect, Responsibility, Reliability, -- then we really have done everything we can to give them wings and set them free to be successful people ushering in the next generation.
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