In our superheated, information overload age, we need to bring back civil discourse for our kids.
When I was in eighth grade, I asked my social studies teacher why there weren’t any sunny pictures of the Soviet Union in our world history textbook. It was 1978. I wasn’t trying to be provocative. It just didn't strike me as entirely plausible.
“Sadly,” my teacher told me, “That’s the way it is in the Soviet Union. The days are always cold and dark.”
I was sure that he had missed my point. I understood that the Soviet Union was an awful, totalitarian regime. I understood that it was our nation’s enemy. I understood that we each had enough nukes pointed at each other to blow the world to smithereens about a zillion times over.
But doesn’t the sun shine on all of the earth?
"Nope,” he repeated, when I questioned his answer. “It’s a dark, cold place.”
I could see the muscles in his jaws clenching as he fielded my query. He was angry.
Several years later, when I was in 11th grade, another one of my teachers asked the class an interesting question: “If your house is on fire, do you rush back in to save a burning American flag?”
Even at the argumentative age of 17, we all answered emphatically that we would. I remember that I was thinking of what my eighth grade teacher had said when I answered his question. There were right and wrong answers to these kinds of puzzles. There wasn’t really room for discussion.
But my 11th grade teacher disagreed. “No you don’t,” he said. “Let that flag burn. Never confuse the symbol for what it stands for."
We had a great discussion that day. I’ll never forget how much more free I felt because of that discussion. Some of us agreed with what he had said. Some of us didn’t. But no one yelled. No one shut anyone down. He was teaching more than history or philosophy that day. He was teaching us how to be grown-ups.
Today, there isn’t a lot of gray for our kids when we talk about our mixed-up world. It’s like my eighth grade classroom. There’s a whole lot of anger. There are lots of jaws being clenched.
The infringement against respectful discourse indiscriminately threatens the entire ideological spectrum. I’ve heard from kids that there are social settings where they can’t voice any discomfort at all with our current national leadership. I’ve also heard that there are settings where they can be completely ostracized for supporting that very same leadership.
Just pick an issue: gender fluidity, taxes, climate change, affirmative action – it’s a long list. When was the last time you heard a civil airing of differences between folks who truly straddle the issues? I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when that’s recently happened. That’s how impervious our bubbles have become.
We don’t do our kids any favors with this kind of approach. We can’t afford as parents, teachers and mentors to sit back and to passively observe as our youngsters are told stringently what to think and believe rather than being taught how to think for themselves.
This is also where our brains get us into trouble. It feels good to be enraged. Being enraged releases dopamine and other endorphins. Some have even argued that we can get hooked on our own righteous indignations. The teen brain is already more vulnerable to neurobiologically rewarding experiences. That means teens are that much more vulnerable to this kind of anger addiction. Researchers like Kristine Marceau at Brown University have noted that children are remarkably likely to model their response to anger based on the behavior of their parents. Given the potential for adolescents to be disproportionately drawn towards anger, this research suggests that our adult displays of hostile disagreement stick with our kids longer than we’d like.
While we know that our brains like to feel angry, we also know that when kids see us talk to them and to each other with respect and understanding, they develop the capacity for respect and compassion among themselves. Marceau and her colleagues note this in their 2015 research in the journal Development and Psycholopathology.
There are no greater gifts that we can give to our children during these difficult times. While all of this seems like it ought to go without saying, just try to make that case after you spend 10 minutes staring at a newsfeed. Now amplify that by a thousand or more to account for the bombardment that the Internet affords. This is what we’re up against. That’s why it’s worth saying it all again.
Help your kids to think clearly and empathically. Help them to tolerate disagreements. Don’t let them fall prey to the cycle of ideologically driven angry dependency. The world is more complex than all that. And if they disagree with you, have a discussion. You’re not telling them what to think.
You’re helping them simply to think in the first place.
By Steven Schlozman
13 June 2017