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The Morning After: What Have We Done to Our Children?

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Recent guest bloggers Dr.'s Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff write again, calling for us to  reclaim civility  'formal politeness and courtesy' in our behavior and in our speech. The children are watching.

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 witness a simple square that helps a circle get to the top of a hill, they prefer it over the triangle that tried to block the circle's path. Recent studies by Vaish and colleagues also find that 3-year olds appreciate fairness and will avoid helping people with harmful intentions.  We are fundamentally social beings - or as Michael Tomasello reminds us, ultra social beings. 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 an outsider.  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 want to elect, but about how we want to raise and groom our children so that they become good people and responsible citizens for the future.  We can build on the natural tendencies to be social and kind to others.  We can shape positive family values, or we can continue to be divisive and hurtful.  In a classic experiment by Albert Bandura and colleagues, scientists had children watch an adult who was either aggressive or non- aggressive with an inflated and large Bobo doll.  The doll was balanced by sand at the base so that you could bump it or hit it and it would return to an upright position.  The children who watched more violent behavior - whether watching live or on screen - clobbered the Bobo Doll. Those who saw the non-aggressive adult were not as violent .

It is the morning after - the morning after a divisive election that brought out the worst of our human instincts.  Worse yet, it exposed us fully to our children who are taught to respect people, to treat others as they want to be treated themselves and to be civil to people who do not look like us or who believe in different views than we endorse.  Today is a day to reclaim civility - formal politeness and courtesy - in our behavior and in our speech.   If we don't our actions will drown out any words that we might utter and we collectively will bear the blame for the society that we create.

Contact: Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff, co-authors of Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us us about Raising Successful Children

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