Children And Civility

I teach a stress management workshop to teenagers as part of my job as Child & Teen Services Manager with Parent Trust.  Each year I go into the health classes at a variety of high schools and spend 90 minutes with mostly 9th graders.

Every once in a while, someone will visit my class.  A colleague, a board member, someone else in the field.  And without exception, they all comment on the students and their demeanor.

Having taught in the high schools now for almost 10 years, I’ve become immune to some of the behaviors.  Some, however, are impossible to ignore and make me wonder–is it just that we are adults now and can’t remember what high school is like, or have we seen a slow slide of civility over the years?  Is the idea of civility an outdated idea?  Or if not, how to we help our teenagers reclaim civil behavior so that when they enter the adult, working world they are able to behave appropriately?

I recently asked one of the teachers I work with what she thought, and she very strongly stated–it gets worse every year.

So, what are these behaviors and how typical are they?  Is the behavior developmentally appropriate for a teenager?  Rebelling is normal to some extent.  Is this just a case of teenagers being teenagers in today’s world?  And if it is, is this something we are willing to accept as inevitable, or can we start a civility movement (!) starting with our own families and friends?

With young children, we often see the opposite type of behavior–children who are well- mannered and follow directions at school, but talk back to the parents and are uncooperative at home.  Parents often hear that their child is a fantastic student in the classroom but they see very different behaviors at home.  This is usually a sign of good attachment.  Children push against parental authority as they grow, so they can “differentiate” themselves as individuals other than their parents.  But if they have been taught to be polite, they are able to exercise those civil behaviors out of the home.  Children with strong attachment know that their parents love them–they can afford to act out to a certain extent.  But not being as sure of other adults, they can exercise impulse control.

But teenage rebellion isn’t just against parents–it’s against rules and social codes. However, most teenagers should still be capable of using impulse control when put in a situation that demands civil behavior.

Here is a list of some of the behaviors that I notice and that guest visitors comment to me about.  As you read through, think to yourself–is this something I would allow at home from my children?  Is this something I’ve done myself in a public forum?  Are these behaviors acceptable teenage behaviors?  Or–do we need to revisit how we frame and value civility in our family and community?

  1. Talking with each other while teacher talking; repeated talking after being asked to stop.
  2. Reading non-class materials during presentation, even after being asked to stop
  3. Eating in class when there is a rule that there is no eating in class. This varies from quietly finishing a sandwich to three teens passing a bag of potato chips and a bottle of hot sauce back and forth during class.
  4. Using cell phones. Cell phones are not allowed in any class I’ve visited.  Yet inevitably there are a few students who hold their phones on their laps and use them–thinking I can’t see what they are doing.
  5. Sleeping during class.
  6. Putting feet up on desks while lounging back in chair.
  7. Rude/insulting comments both verbally in the class and written on surveys after the class

If any of these behaviors are a shock to you, keep in mind this is daily behavior, not just for me as a guest speaker.  The teachers I work with confirm that they constantly need to remind students and lower their own expectations for civil behavior in the school community.

What is civil behavior and why is it important?  Civil behavior refers to respectful behavior that helps maintain social harmony.  As a society, we may be experiencing the lowest dip in civil behaviors, possibly brought on by the prevalent use of social media.  When one is anonymous, one can be as blunt, rude and disrespectful as possible with impunity.  In addition, as population increases, and public places (public gathering places like shopping malls, libraries; public transportation, housing, classrooms…) become more crowded, civility usually decreases.

According to a piece in a 2012 Psychology Today article1:  “The psychological elements of civility include awareness, self-control, empathy, and respect. If we believe that all human beings “are created equal” and have worth, then civility is an obligation to act in ways that honor that belief. It requires us to treat others with decency, regardless of our differences. It demands restraint and an ability to put the interests of the common good above self-interests.”

Since civility is taught, the onus is on us–the adults in the community–to set the example, role model, and with gentle correction, humor and kindness–with civility–redirect our children and raise our expectations for not just them but for ourselves and our entire community.

I want to end this piece by saying that there are students who have exceeded my notions of teen civility.  Students have come up to me after class and shook my hand and thanked me!  I’ve had students come to me and apologize on behalf of their classmates.  I’ve had written comments that are so genuine and kind and thoughtful that I’ve been brought to tears.

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