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  1. Opinion

Column: Teaching life skills is essential for restoring civil discourse

As the Republican presidential primary descends on Florida, it is an occasion to ask what happened to civility in American political conversation. There is no need to imagine the political world is like Disney's Magic Kingdom. It's rough and tumble.

But what is different now is that your kids can see the fights happening in your living room or on their smartphones. Even if they don't understand exactly what is being said, they hear our future leaders shout at and over one another. Although the debate in Miami finally brought a touch of civility, being negative is seen as a strategy for success. Two wrongs clearly make a right, but three wrongs might be even better. Disrespect is communicated constantly, often even while saying, "I respect my opponent."

Yet we live in a time where cooperation and collaboration are essential for any lasting family, vocational, educational or civic accomplishment. We want our children to be discerning, to separate nonsense from truth, to seek depth of understanding before making decisions, and to control their strong emotions in the service of their goals and higher sense of purpose. Our schools need to be places where these competencies are nurtured, year after year, like reading and math skills.

Make no mistake about it — what we are seeing in our politics has started in our homes and communities. There are many pressures and many frustrations. Economic issues loom large, both for families that do not have what they need and for families who do not have what they envy. Students rarely learn about local politics and grow into adults also lacking that understanding. Wellsprings of hatred and fear about "the other" have bubbled over in many communities.

So it is left for our schools to teach the skills that our students will need for success in life as adults. On Oct. 13, 1972, Sargent Shriver declared teaching to be "The Hardest Job in America;" 44 years later, his words bear sharing.

Shriver says that it's the hardest job "not just because the teachers of America have been blamed and castigated for all the ills of our educational system — when the fact is that teachers are not the causes of these ills but are victims themselves," and "not just because a narrow officialdom has bogged teachers down in massive red tape wasteful of time and destructive of initiative."

No, the reason Shriver said it's the hardest job is because teachers are expected to teach students values that they are not seeing lived all around them and in the society overall.

Too little has changed in almost half a century. What are the values that Shriver believes are central to effective education? They are not controversial: reverence for life, honesty and truth, brotherhood/sisterhood and unity, desire and respect for knowledge and education.

There can be no mistake about it. We must teach our children life skills, social-emotional and character competencies, in our schools. They need to excel in understanding their feelings and those of others, managing their strong emotions, having empathy for those around them, working well in groups as leaders and teammates, and in ethical problem-solving and decisionmaking.

They need these skills to avoid bullying and verbally intimidating others, to avoid self-harm via drugs and other substances, to avoid meanness and exclusion, and to avoid small-mindedness. With these skills, they can avoid media manipulation and have the confidence and ability to enter civic life.

This requires schools that live the values to which we aspire. Kids want to go to schools that stand for something and feel part of that sense of purpose, and to participate in the civic life of these schools as a living laboratory for cultivating habits of civic engagement.

The discourse our children — and all of us — have been witnessing is a sign that we must redouble our efforts to teach all of our students life skills in schools that are caring, supportive and dignified. The children are waiting, and they have waited long enough.

Maurice J. Elias, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University, directs the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, is academic director of the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu) and co-director of the Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools (SELinSchools.org). He has written a new e-book, "Emotionally Intelligent Parenting," and a book for parents of young children and their children, "Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children." He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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