The foundational virtue of citizenship, civility is behaviour that recognises the humanity of others, allowing us to live peacefully together in neighbourhoods and communities. 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 honour 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.
It’s impossible to know if civility has really declined because we can’t measure it scientifically. But by all subjective measures, most believe it has severely decreased over the past two decades. Stories like the ridiculed bus driver may seem unusually distasteful, but this kind of behaviour occurs daily around the globe. In classrooms and homes, and on the world wide web.
There are several hypotheses for this decline. First, as society has become more informal, some ethics scholars suggest there are no longer agreed upon rules for respectful behaviour. Norms have become unclear and fuzzy. The web has produced an etiquette-free zone where people can post anonymous and uncivil criticisms with ease.
With anonymity, there is no responsibility.
Today, name-calling and vulgarity fill the halls of congress, and our politicians negative political ads attack character over substance, and reality show television encourages self-regard over the common good.
Shows like “The Apprentice”,The franchise for The real Housewives and “Survivor” highlight back-stabbing behaviour as admirable and winning qualities.
In short, children are exposed to rudeness, vulgarity, and violence that would be unthinkable in previous generations.
Admittedly, there are many roadblocks to reversing the downward trend of civility in today's society. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. In fact, as parents, teachers, politicians, television producers, and others who impact children’s lives, we have a responsibly to do so.
Studies show that incivility leads to violence, unhealthy communities, and societies paralysed by conflict and political division.
Here are ways children learn civility from adults:
Lead by example.
Think about the impact of our words and actions on others first.
Treat children and adults with the respect that we expect them to treat others.
Apologise when we are wrong.
Disagree with intelligence, humour and civil discourse.
Don’t let anger and emotion get in the way of listening to others.
Teach character strengths, like respect and empathy, at home and in class rooms.
Demand civility of our politicians and public servants.
Set ground rules for civil behaviour at home and in classrooms.
Challenge people’s views but don’t attack the person.
Be tolerant of people who are different from us.
Praise others for their civil behaviour, regardless of their viewpoints.
Empower children to take a stand against bullying.
Remind kids often why we should be civil.
Teach our children how to behave become engaged citizens.
This list is not extensive or complete.
Children can be inspired, equipped, and mobilised to make a difference in the world. Not only do children's actions help others, research shows it helps them become happier, more successful adults.
Marks, J. (1996, April 22). The American uncivil wars: How crude, rude, and obnoxious behaviour has replaced good manners and why that hurts politics and culture. US News and World Report, 66-72.
Peck D. L. (2002). Civility: A contemporary context for a meaningful historical concept. Sociological Inquiry, 72, 358-375.