No matter your political affiliation, it is an exciting and historic time for our nation as the first African-American is inaugurated President of the United States! This accomplishment is the result of a tremendous outpouring of unprecedented civic involvement by millions of people of all ages and races and from all parts of our very diverse country. Truly this remarkable level of civic participation has the potential to dramatically accelerate the great experiment in democracy that is the foundation of our United States.
As we witness the unfolding of theses events, what lessons and opportunities are there for those of us involved in raising and educating preschool-age children? What can we do to increase the chances of our children being similarly informed and active participants in the civic and social life of the world they are to inherit?
Young children are not naturally inclined toward democratic process. In fact quite the opposite is true. Young children are inherently (and appropriately) self focused and self-referential. A typical two year old tends not to be tremendously empathetic or sympathetic to the needs of others -- nor should one expect a toddler to demonstrate these qualities. Unless exposed and educated from a very young age in concern and caring for others and the greater social good, it is not inevitable that a child will develop into a caring and compassionate adult.
I'd like to focus on these ideas and some practical methods on how to encourage in young children the values and skills necessary to be good citizens. Peaceful and functional communities require a citizenry where people treat each other with mutual respect, consideration, honesty and integrity, and where people have the ability and inclination to share, accommodate and compromise. These skills and values are learned from the very earliest age, first and most important from how they are modeled by adults, and secondly when they are directly experienced by children as leading to positive outcomes in their own family and school life.
Another way of thinking of the same set of issues is that as a person matures from infancy to adulthood the hope is that he or she will become less selfish and less self-obsessed and increasingly oriented toward collective concerns and altruistic values. A child raised with these values will gradually and age-appropriately develop empathy, compassion and a growing concern for the welfare of others.
Our social values system is democratic and for a democracy to work it requires an informed and involved citizenry. How we raise our children and the values they are immersed in will determine the success of the democratic experiment. No matter what the content of the curriculum in civic classes, the way the institutions of family and school are organized and structured will be much more influential in the values and skills children internalize. If we run our homes and schools tyrannically or as dictatorships (no matter how benevolent) then that is what children will learn and model, leaving them ill equipped as adults to be full participants in a democratically based society.
If we are committed, then, to democratic values and to raising educated and engaged citizens we must run our families and schools as participatory democracies. This means above all open communication and full participation in important decisions.
The key component to any community, family, school or nation, is a sense of common purpose and shared intention. To put it simply, for a community to function effectively it's essential that members of the community share common goals. Some of the goals that family members typically have in common are mutual support and affection, and the sustaining of each member's needs, from the basic needs of clothing food and shelter, to the more complex emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. The family as community is harmonious and functional when each member's needs are being adequately addressed, and is chaotic and full of conflict when individual members needs are frustrated, ignored or deprived. When there is disharmony and conflict in a family it is most often because the sense of shared purpose has been lost, or when one or more of the family members perceive that their needs are being inadequately addressed.
It is normal in any community including a family for there to be times of relative harmony and ease as well as periods of stress and challenge. An open and honest communication style is perhaps the best tool available to sustain a smooth family life, and this is especially true during those times of conflict, disharmony and stress.
One suggestion for developing an open and direct communication style in the context of family life is the family meeting. All that is required to implement the family meeting is that the time be set aside and certain ground rules be established from those in leadership positions (that's you, the parents!). In order to be most effective family meetings need to happen regularly, (not just when there are problems), and everyone must have the opportunity to be heard. Sometimes solutions and problem-solving will be a natural result of such a meeting, and sometimes just respectfully listening to each person's point of view can in and of itself effect positive change.
One idea is to set aside a regular time each week or every other week for your family meeting, let's say Sundays between 4 and 5. Everyone will have an opportunity to share (without interruption) about some things they like that are happening in the life of the family, and some things they don't like or wish were different. Some times the sharing will result in ideas for specific changes, and other times not. A reasonable goal is to come to general agreement so that the entire family can join together again at the level of shared purpose and intention. What's most impressive about this simple process is that once the truth is spoken no one is really surprised at what each person shares; what has been implicit is simply made explicit. Even for children who may not have a lot to say, this family meeting can be a valuable process to witness and to eventually participate in.
It is best to choose a time for your family meeting that can easily be followed by some relaxed recreational family time. In this way the deepened sense of intimacy and connection that hopefully stems from listening to and sharing with one another can immediately be appreciated.
An example of how this process might work: one common complaint might be, (most likely from one of the parent leaders), that there's a lack of cooperation when it's time to getting ready to leave the house in the morning. A counter complaint from the children is that mornings are just too rushed and hurried, with too little time for fun and being together. A simple suggestion which could come out of the meeting might be to set aside a five or ten minute period each morning for being together in a calm and relaxed way, either before or after all the necessary preparations for the day. Everyone agrees to try this new system, and that in exchange for setting aside the five or ten minutes everyone will be more cooperative and participatory during the morning get-it-together routine.
This is just one example of how setting aside a weekly or biweekly time for a family meeting might work. A simple exercise like the family meeting, when implemented regularly and with the proper spirit, can not only lead to a more harmonious family life, but can also help prepare children for the challenges and benefits of living in an open democracy as engaged and responsible citizens.
So if you are excited by the unfolding of these historic events in the life of our nation, then be willing to experiment in your own home and with your own family in implementing new communication and decision models based on solid democratic principles. There is perhaps no more important thing you can do to increase the chances of your children becoming engaged and active citizens.
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