Watch your tongue:children are listening

(August 30, 2018)

There are good reasons behind the admonition “Not in front of the children, please!”

Children are little sponges, soaking up information and what it means in ways even their parents barely understand. Other people are oblivious to the ankle-biters running around them at social events and elsewhere.

What the chronologically adult members of our society say and do in public affects the next generation, whether they realize it or not.

When it comes to racism, bigotry, sexism, prejudice and all-around cultural misery, therefore, the “dinosaur dismissal” of waiting for the old nasty ones to die off so things will get better just doesn’t work.

Adding the internet to the mix, anything that appears on Facebook or Twitter these days will also be overheard by the next generation.

This is not a new thing. I remember, as a young teen, overhearing many negative comments from adults I otherwise respected, about “immigrants,” “refugees,” people from other places coming to Canada and taking “our” jobs, “our” land, not accepting “our” culture, bringing with them the attitudes and politics of “their” country to Canada and causing trouble.

But I was also smart enough to realize that all these comments were being delivered in Scottish, Polish, Ukrainian and Hungarian accents, by people oblivious to the irony that they were denying to other needy people the same opportunities they had been given.

The waves of “boat people” from Southeast Asia, followed by other waves from Central and South America, then Africa, soon swamped such attitudes, at least officially, but lately there has been an increase in public comments too much like the ones I overheard in the 1970s.

I don’t think there are more racists or bigots in Canada now than before. Anyone who walks around the streets of any Canadian city or (increasingly) in small towns, too, knows that they will find a cross-section of the whole world living together in a kind of harmony that other countries envy. The negative comments these days just go farther and faster, thanks to social media.

Fascism, especially, has always depended upon technology since microphones, loudspeakers, movies and radios were used to spread the propaganda that helped create Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s and 1930s.

The real problem, for me, is not the nastiness of some of these “adults.” The real problem is that the children are listening. As adults, we can console ourselves by saying that there will be an election soon, and the government will have to change for the better, but that is not good enough. There may not be another election, or the change may make things worse instead.

The children, however, look at what is being said or done in public, and then observe how the adults they respect in their lives choose to respond. The schoolyard is society in miniature — kids experience the same range of attitudes and emotions as adults, just on a smaller scale, though (as we know from problems with bullying) one that can be just as lethal to the victims.

What happens at home, or is spread through social media, sooner or later will surface at school and will influence the rest of their lives.

I have always felt, however, that trying to keep things just between the adults has never really worked. Instead of trying to hide the nasty things in society that you don’t want the kids to see, we should embrace the opportunity to shape the lives of the next generation in a positive way.

Public proclamations against racism and prejudice are necessary, I suppose, but kids learn from what we do, not what we say. The single most powerful tool to shape their lives (and our world) for the better is something that is easy for everyone to use, every day: compassion.

What I heard, behind the bigoted and racist comments the adults made in my childhood, was a lack of compassion for people in the same situation as they once were.

In a world where millions of people are refugees, and before climate change makes things even worse, we need to demonstrate the same compassion for others that we would want for ourselves if we were the ones pleading for help at the door.

We will never have enough money, enough resources or enough time as the needs around us continue to grow.

But if the children watch us and learn what compassion is and what it means, those life lessons could change everything.

Compassion creates possibilities that were not there before.

Best of all, compassion is not only free — it is priceless.

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