With the vandalism and violence of so many (primarily) young men in London, I’ve naturally been thinking about our youth in general; how we’re supposed to teach them to behave in a civilized way, and what it looks like when we fail.
It made me think of a small incident I overheard last week. There are three small children who live next door and, since they’re home-schooled, I often hear them playing in their backyard during “recess” while I’m working in the garden. The youngest is three years old (with the shriek of a banshee) and, listening to an exchange she had with an older sister, it forcibly struck me,
1) just how not-civilized we are to start with, and
2) how grueling it is to train us to try and cooperate and respect the rules instead.
Only not in the way you’d first expect.
Third Child has reached the stage where she understands the basic rules of cooperation: Thou shalt not hit or call names or take anything by force, Thou shalt talk instead of scream, and Thou shalt use your words to try and work it out with your sisters before tattle-taling to mommy. So when her older sister tried to pull a fast one and tell her that, no, no, no, you pick up the dog poop, Third Child understood that she had to raise her verbal fists and talk about it before resorting to other options.
Noooooo!! We have to take turns! We’re supposed to take turns!
I know…and it’s your turn. (With age comes cunning.)
No it’s not! It’s your turn! (Youth was not gullible.) We have to take turns! You have to take turns!!
Okay. I’ll do it later. (Age doubled back to try and throw her off the scent.)
No! Nooooo!! It’s your turn!! You have to do it now!! We have to take turns!! We have to take TURNS!!!
By this time, Third Child had reached the limits of a three-year old’s self-control and her volume was climbing accordingly. Older sister, realizing that mommy was likely to hear, finally capitulated and went off grumbling to pick up the poop while Third Child breathed raggedly for a minute or so, trying to de-escalate her emotions.
By this time I’d stopped what I was doing on the other side of the fence and was just standing there, fascinated and floored. Third Child’s performance was absolutely amazing to me. The discipline and effort she displayed in her attempt to deal with the problem in a civilized fashion (the above version is actually abbreviated–in reality she must have repeated We have to take turns! twenty or thirty times before she finally started to lose it) was really, truly impressive.
And, not to take away from Third Child’s achievement in any way, but I also instantly recognized the amount of mind-numbing, soul-sucking time, patience, and repetition required on her parents’ part, to get her to the point where she finally internalized the rule she kept repeating. Children don’t learn something as complex as what it means to be civilized from just telling them to do it once. Either do adolescents or adults for that matter. It’s the kind of thing we all need to hear over and over again, to observe by example in the behavior of others around us over and over again, to practice for ourselves–making lots of initial mistakes while being patiently corrected–over and over again, before it can finally be internalized as a first response.
And even after all that, it still needs to be continually reinforced or we’ll eventually slide back into the powerful impulses of our more primitive selves.
I look at the lawless, uncontrolled, destruction and violence of the last few days and can’t help but wonder how this happened? Clearly, the young men participating aren’t behaving in a civilized way, but why not? Where did the grueling training required for them to learn how to do so not materialize? Didn’t they have someone to teach them when they were small? Or didn’t they have enough role models showing them what it looks like along the way? Or didn’t they have anyone who cared enough to patiently correct them, over and over again, when they inevitably made mistakes along the way?
In other words, in a civilized society, how in the world did so many of our young citizens reach manhood without learning the fundamental tenets of what it means to be civilized?
I firmly believe that those who have done harm should be held accountable for what they’ve done. Justice and fairness are essential components of successful cooperation. But I also think that, as a society, it’s possible we’ve all been negligent, and we should also hold ourselves accountable for that. It looks like the majority of the damage has been done by disadvantaged young men, with few or no opportunities available to better their condition, and I don’t think it’ll surprise anyone when I mention that the hopelessness and anger of grinding poverty has always had a de-civilizing, de-stabilizing effect.
I also can’t help but notice that, worldwide, it’s been the most vulnerable populations bearing the vastly disproportionate burden of the downturn. Which begs the question; are the rest of us playing the role of the older sister here? Are we shirking our duties and trying to make the least powerful among us pick up all the poop?
I don’t know what the answers are to these questions…they’re far too many and too complex for simple explanations. But I do know this: Each of us can, ourselves, strive to behave in a more civilized manner towards others. Even if they’re not. Those of us who did learn the rules of civilized behavior can stand in as the desperately needed role models for others who didn’t, or for those who have just temporarily forgotten and need a reminder.
Third Child actually stood in as a role model for her older sister, with great success. Maybe we can all try to be more like her in our thoughts, words, and deeds. We can refrain from hitting, calling names, or using force, we can try talking instead of yelling and, if there’s a problem, we can try to communicate directly instead of just blaming, belittling, or otherwise lashing out.
Violence has a capacity to spread, but then so does respect. Acting with discipline and emotional restraint in the face of injustice is always hard, but if a three-year old can do it, surely…surely…the rest of us can at least try.
copyright 2011 Dia Osborn