What Have We Done To Our Children?

Today's letter is "C" is for CIVILITY. Sadly, we have spent the last year and a half showing our children the worst of human behavior. In the public squares, in our dens, and in our coffee shops, they have witnessed adults as liars, tattle-tellers, bullies, racists, and hate mongers. In other circumstances, we are the first to argue that these behaviors are unacceptable. In light of this election, however, that is like telling them not to smoke while a lit cigarette dangles from our lips.

Our children are not born to hate and fear. As the famous musical South Pacific proclaims, "You have to be carefully taught." Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics are supported by research in child development. When 10-month-olds see a little movie in which a simple square helps a circle get to the top of a hill, they prefer it over watching a triangle trying to block the circle's path doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00111 . Recent studies by Vaish and colleagues 10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143812 also find that 3-year-olds appreciate fairness and will avoid helping people with harmful intentions. We are fundamentally ultra-social beings as the psychologist Michael Tomasello reminds us. Unlike our closest cousins in the animal world, we deeply rely on adults to nurture us and protect us after we are born. We form relationships and we learn to trust (or not to trust) those who care for us.

True, the data also show that we can be lured in another direction. By 9 months babies can distinguish faces that are not like theirs and they are quickly attuned to who is an insider and who an outsider doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.02029.
There we find the seeds of what can become disdain for those who hold views different than our own.

The question for us is not merely about which president we elect, but about how we raise our children so that they become good, respectful people and responsible citizens for the future. Children learn either positive or negative behaviors by watching us. In a classic experiment by Albert Bandura and colleagues, scientists had children watch an adult who was either aggressive or not aggressive with a large inflated Bobo doll. Balanced by unseen sand at its base, the doll could be bumped or hit and it would spring back to an upright position. The children who watched an adult punch or kick the Bobo doll clobbered the doll themselves. Those who saw an adult who was not aggressive with the Bobo doll engaged in far fewer aggressive acts. doi:10.1037/h0045925

This divisive election brought out the worst of our human instincts. Worse yet, our children witnessed amazing incivility, name-calling, imitation of those with disabilities, and a general lack of respect for others. Today is a day to reclaim civility - formal politeness and courtesy - in our behavior and in our speech. Our children must be taught to treat others as they want to be treated themselves, and to be civil to people who do not look like us or believe our views. Reclaiming civility is essential lest the actions and words observed during this campaign are imitated by our children. We will collectively bear the blame for the society that we create.