As a child, were you ever admonished by a trusted adult about a way of behaving, acting, or speaking that was not appreciated? Had your wings clipped by your mother or father, maybe by a teacher, for uttering an unkindness or downright meanspirited comment to another? I hope we all answer yes because if we answer no, then we would not be being honest with ourselves. Of course this is a rhetorical question. All people, ourselves and our children included, have needed to be coached, counselled, corrected, and directed at some point in our lives and usually for good reason. And it’s a good thing because we are in the business of raising the next generation of adults, not children.
When I was a child, my grandmother always repeated the same instruction, if she ever overheard children “talking smack” to one another: “Personal comments are never in good taste!” That little nugget was drilled into us kids from the earliest years. You didn’t comment on another’s appearance, their hair, the way they dressed, how they spoke, their eyeglasses, the contents of their lunch…the list goes on. You get the picture. Now raise your hand, if you have ever heard a child, perhaps your own, making similar comments to friends, peers, or even perfect strangers. The truth is that many children feel they have the right to do so.
Have you ever heard a child say something like this: “Why is your nose so red?” or “You have big ears, weird teeth, or ugly clothes!” or “Your lunch smells funny”. As adults, we disregard these little glimpses into the minds of children, but what happens when a child is the target of these types of observations or unwelcome comments? It is a different story and, as the adults in their lives, we have the threefold duty to admonish, educate – and set a good example when our children act this way.
When I was a kid, there was a family of three boys on my street. They were a self-confident alpha brood and popular; strong athletes and on the vanguard of pop culture. You might say uber cool guys in the eyes of the world. However, they had sharp tongues and they weren’t afraid to use them. They peddled in cutting remarks, killer statements, and unwelcome commentary directed toward other kids and sometimes even grown-ups. As an adult looking back, I see the problem clearly. Their parents were exactly the same way. When I was around 9 years-old, I have a vivid memory of overhearing the boys’ father making fun of the paper boy’s appearance and wagon, heckling the kid along with his sons. Outrageous really. But there you have it – big mean people produce little mean people. It is a cautionary tale (incidentally, the father in question was a high school history teacher!).
The admonishment of children regarding unwelcome comments and disrespectful behaviour is the duty of every teacher and parent, if our end goal is the formation of thoughtful, respectful, and responsible human beings. A quick survey of the social media landscape should be compelling enough reason with its vitriol and toxicity, opinions and provocations polluting civil discourse at every level.
Sometimes children justify “trash talking” or serving up “killer statements” to other kids because those kids may “deserve it” – after all, they disrupt group activities, interfere, or provoke. However, figuring out how to balance the needs of a group with the rights of an individual in a moral framework takes thought and effort and an unwavering commitment to being decent.
The answers aren’t necessarily simple or obvious. But we can help our children figure things out by asking the right questions and looking to the good example of trusted adults for guidance and instruction.
People like our grandmothers knew that “personal comments are never (never) in good taste”.
Good advice never gets old.
Ric Anderson, Head of School