“Oh my word! I cannot believe these people. What a joke.”
I was watching our local school board meeting online this summer, struggling to understand the things being said and decisions being made. Had I taken a minute to think it through from other perspectives, I probably could have seen why they were saying the things they were. There’s much room for disagreement with school decisions, and these leaders were under enormous pressure to get things right.
What are we modeling for our children?
I didn’t think I was insulting anyone; rather, I just spoke quickly and, seemingly, to no one. But it wasn’t to no one. My kids were in the room. And what may have seemed to me like a harmless comment sounded to them like: “Mom thinks these people are a joke. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re idiots.”
As my kids get older, I’m learning more and more how important my language is. What might be nuanced for me translates to an absolute for them. Because they’re still developing in so many critical ways, it’s vital that they learn empathy and critical thinking while they’re in my care. But when I’m sending them mixed messages through my words or actions, it’s hard for them to develop those important skills.
Recently, a woman named Melissa Blake wrote a piece requesting that parents stop using her image for a viral TikTok challenge. In this challenge, parents use Blake’s image or those of other people with disabilities to get a reaction out of the children for the camera by telling them the picture is of their new teacher. Meant to generate laughs, the challenge not only exploits and victimizes the person whose image is used, but it also exploits the child whose reaction is captured.
Civility isn’t setting aside truth for the sake of unity; it’s showing respect for others made in God’s image.
Blake, who was born with Freeman-Sheldon syndrome, a genetic bone and muscular disorder, called parents out for their actions:
Adults who actually think this is okay, and worse . . . even funny, should know better. There’s absolutely no excuse. They should be the ones teaching their children how harmful and hurtful these pranks are, not laughing in the background as their child recoils at the sight of a disabled person. We live in a society where people who look “different” are seen as ugly and grotesque; those messages start being taught at a young age. Think about how many Disney villains have some sort of deformity.
She’s right, and yet a quick scroll through our social media accounts reveals that, if we do know better, we’re not putting that knowledge into action. We call strangers names, we cancel people, and we settle for half-truths and ad hominem attacks instead of doing the hard work of trying to understand other people. How can we expect our children to do any better when this is what we’re modeling for them?
Is there a more civil way to disagree?
The issue, of course, isn’t just our words. When we make flippant statements about other people, we reveal what we truly think of them. Right now, there’s so much disagreement in our families, churches, and communities about COVID-19, masks, racial injustice, politics, education—you name it. And disagreement is normal. But there has to be a more civil way to disagree with one another and to teach our kids to disagree. After all, our children are growing up in a society that will frequently disagree with their beliefs. How can we equip them to be winsome and humble while also being firm and steadfast?
In the book Are My Kids on Track?, counselor and author David Thomas compares disagreeing respectfully to riding a bike, saying, “None of us know how to do it until we’re taught.” This is why seeing it done and practicing it is so important. But do our kids get to see it in practice? Thomas goes on to say:
Civility is a lost art. Watch athletes and coaches yelling at referees on ESPN, watch presidential debates, read Twitter feuds, watch the news. Our kids have so few opportunities to see what it looks like to disagree with respect.
We will always disagree with other people about things. In this season, it seems we have more than enough occasions to practice civility, which seems to come at the crossroads of empathy and critical thinking. We can look at an issue logically while also attempting to understand the feelings and beliefs of another person leading them to their position. Civility isn’t setting aside truth for the sake of unity; it’s showing respect for others made in God’s image.
So, how do we know if we’re being civil in our disagreements?
- We may disagree with others’ political views, but do we dehumanize them behind their backs? (Or to their screens?)
- We may disagree with the views of others on social issues, but do we misrepresent them or resort to half truths in our disagreement, or do we attempt to understand why they believe what they believe?
- We may disagree with our church’s response to COVID-19, but do we seek the unity of the body in how we handle it, or do we start looking for a new church?
We need to learn these things just as much as our kids do. And perhaps we can learn them together—in our families, churches, and communities. This is how we live out the words of Romans 12:15-16: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight”
This year is giving us ample opportunities to help kids develop empathy and civility. When we’re discussing or encounter one of the various things going on in our country and throughout the world, we have the chance to shepherd them with love and truth and to display civility to a world that desperately needs to see it. Let’s pray to that end.
How should Christians think through issues of our day? The new Courage and Civility Church Toolkit gives pastors and church leaders a helpful path to walk with their congregations about the things that truly matter and shows them how to process this chaotic and polarized moment.