Teaching civility a crucial step in helping a child build a future

Published: Tuesday, July 17 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

He has said that civility is in decline and that how people treat each other determines society's strength. "More and more we became obsessed with 'I,' with 'me.' Now we instill plenty of self-esteem in our children — but not self-restraint. People today are so self-absorbed they don't know the value of restraint, and yet you cannot have a healthy society without it," he told AARP. "To survive, a society needs an amount of goodwill — people willing to treat each other with respect and to give of themselves to the community. Civility is the lifeblood of a society."

A respectful family

Dean Johnson of Everett, Wash., believes civility is about respect and how you show it. He's an emergency medical technician and driver who said he can defuse a critical, potentially dangerous situation simply by treating people well. And teaching good behavior, kindness, empathy, restraint, self-discipline and other attitudes that form civility has been a goal as he and his wife Lisa have raised Ryan "RJ", 12, and Eleanore, 14.

The two children can stand toe to toe and argue. But "I try to always fight fair," said Eleanore, who credits that to her parents' efforts to make them behave well. "Even if people are rude to her, my mom will shrug it off. 'It doesn't matter, you don't know what's happening in their lives. You have to put yourself in their shoes.' "

Her mom said the result of inculcating civility is visible. Lisa Johnson wanted to instill self-confidence and caring in her kids and to let them know they can make good decisions. As they become more independent, she sees them make those good decisions. Recently, RJ asked if he could go to a friend's house where they were going to set off fireworks. When he got there and no adults were home, he called and asked if he could watch from the deck while his friends set off fireworks or if he should come home.

Teaching civility walks companionably through life beside good decision-making and respecting others, strong interpersonal relationships and a sense of fairness. It's interconnected, the Johnsons said.

Expanding what it means

Katherine Lee's definition of civility reaches beyond good manners to being grateful and not acting like a brat. "It's very linked to spoiling kids," said the New York mom, who writes on parenting topics for national magazines and About.com. She thinks kids need to know the importance of doing chores, how to say thanks, the value of money, keeping your word and being charitable.

"The foundations start very early," she said, adding that how someone is raised influences how they raise their kids, including how they discipline. That is not the same as punishing. Discipline "sets up a good foundation so a child won't need to be punished," she said.

She said children need age-appropriate chores. They have to know they're expected to say please and thank you. Failure to teach a child basic lessons later hurts social relationships with co-workers, friends and loved ones. "If you raise kids to be more demanding and not grateful, they end up inevitably having problems in school and not being able to see beyond their own needs."

Saying thanks and please acknowledges others; failure to do that creates people who are selfish and demanding, Lee said. "It's as important as giving a child good, nutritious food so he grows up to be strong and healthy. These are tools to become a good citizen and have good social relationships."

As she spoke, her son Sam, 11, walked into the room, talking. He immediately apologized when he realized she was on the phone. He is, she said, a courteous child. Not by chance. He was raised that way.

Bad behavior flourishes when civility isn't the norm, a problem that has led schools across the country to create curriculum to teach proper behavior. Caldarella, for example, directs the Positive Behavior Support Initiative. Its goal is to teach students how to behave in schools with teachers and peers. "Students need to know what the expectations are," he said, "appropriate behaviors for environments taught, then reinforced."

Undermining civility

Calderella's research shows incivility is a bigger problem in secondary than in elementary schools, "probably because students are having to adapt to a new environment, new expectations, new peer group. They are changing from teacher to teacher, so there are different norms in the classrooms."

Not only that, he said, but over time incivility has become viewed as "funny" or "cool." "Students get into fights, complain, make sarcastic remarks. They are inconsiderate or use offensive names."

And if negative behavior doesn't come naturally, popular media stands ready to model it, he said. The message is "this is what it means to be a youth. That's a problem if nobody's teaching the kids what is civil behavior, what it looks like, how to do it and why it's important."

Some parents, in fact, do the opposite. Bayer said it is discouraging to teach kids manners and civility and then send them into a world — including their homes — that not only doesn't practice it but may ridicule civility. Caldarella said teachers sometimes see those efforts undone as well.

"Study after study shows when it is implemented well, the school climate improves with fewer sent to the office and less fighting. I believe that people respond to the environments they are in," he said.

When decent behavior is not reinforced at home or is actually punished, if in school it's not considered cool, adolescents drop civil behavior, Caldarella said. Incivility has received attention on the roads, in the workplace, on college campuses and in politics, he added.

"Training in civility could help our society. We should model it and practice it more."

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