Do you notice how coarsely you are treated by others, or have you been immunized to incivility? If you’re idealistic about how folks should treat one another, my guess is that you’re among the former. On the other hand, if you’ve been hardened by life’s brusqueness, you’re probably one of the immune – and maybe worse, one of the offenders.
Being civil isn’t easy. It requires patience, forethought, and some willingness to tolerate tedium. All those in favor, say “aye”. Those opposed may of course continue to talk over others, forego greetings to rush headlong into matters of personal urgency, drive recklessly, withhold all discernable expressions of respect, and tramp mud into the homes of neighbors.
Of course, incivility is much more objectionable in others than in ourselves. We know that we’re driving too fast because we’re late for the babysitter, brusque because we don’t have all day, or worried that we won’t be heard. Unfortunately, we don’t usually perceive those stressors when we see uncivil behavior in others. Rather than empathizing, most of opt for indignation.
In an age of hyper-over scheduling, where we are frequently reminded that time is money, and our kids, as well, are ever more hurried, it can feel justified to think of civility as a choice. “Hey, it’s great if you’ve got the time, but who does?” Yet routine incivility encumbers virtually all kinds of relationships, even though many of us mistakenly interpret civility or social skills as a slog of irrelevant, artificial etiquette. Children and teens have amazing radar for this attitude, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they feel entitled to be less than civil themselves.
In particular, our kid’s impatience with subordination and boredom – two words that trigger negative associations in almost everyone – have made basic civility feel like servitude to a lot of young people. Think about the last time you were stared down by a defiant teenager, taking his time to cross the street in front of your car when you should have the right of way. These days, a kid who scurries across the street to get out of your way might worry he’ll lose the respect of peers.
It’s a Bigger Issue than Manners
The decline of civility is of course a far bigger issue than manners alone. Manners, which while important, are more or less matters of habit – reflexes that require little premeditation. In contrast, civility requires not only courteous action, but empathic intention. It is the distilled spirit of concern for the emotions of others that guide common rules of civil social engagement. It is the golden key of what we call “social skills.”
(A caveat: there are many people among us whose neurology makes it very difficult – in some cases impossible – for them to outwardly convey social consideration, or what we think of as civil behavior. In this article we are concerned with the trajectory of “neurotypicals.”)
Does this sound like more than kids can reasonably handle? I certainly hope not because it’s the glue that binds all of us together, making our intersecting lives pleasant and manageable.
The problem for young people is that they crave autonomy. “Freedom” is their rallying cry, yet the rules of civility have been around for a very long time. If you don’t believe me, check out George Washington’s translated Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation. It seems interesting that a man willing to die for freedom could at the same time be such a staunch advocate for civility.
The demise of social skills and civil behavior is rooted not only in the rush of contemporary life, but in the gradual annihilation of boredom. There’s simply too much to do and think about for kids to allow their minds to lie idle, even for a millisecond.
Boredom’s natural habitat, the time gaps between work and folly, are steadily being eroded. Primarily, we are killing boredom with electronica from the aisles of Best Buy and Circuit City, but the assault doesn’t stop there. Our collective forms of play, from sports to games, from spending time online to talking on the phone, have colluded to squeeze the life out of boredom.
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We’ve Closed the Boredom Gap
There is a neurological relationship between the elimination of boredom and the rise of incivility. Imagine that some process could vacuum seal your attention so that the gaps between moments of heightened awareness are steadily shrunk until they disappear altogether. The only moments of cognition left would be those of the highest intensity – until those moments were blended seamlessly into a perpetual state of stimulation. This is precisely how young minds are being sculpted by electronica. As their appetite for excitement intensifies, the pauses, contemplation, and down-time that the synapses in their brains used to rely on for, among other things, civility, has been pushed to the brink of extinction.
If our children’s landscape is increasingly marked by peaks and the disappearance of valleys, we might reasonably expect to see some signs of distress among kids whose circuits are overheating. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. Rather than being annoyed by incessant stimulation, they rejoice in it!
That’s what professor Gloria Mark of UC Irvine discovered, for example, about adults as well. She found that most office workers count on various forms of interruption, even though they know the meaning of these interruptions will be trivial. Brief though they may be, these interruptions contain enough power to launch neurotransmitters across synapses, forming the tangential connections that keep the light of excitement, no matter how dimly lit, vaguely alive.
The Bones of Civility
Boredom is of particular relevance to my work as a psychologist. For about a decade I’ve dedicated myself to helping kids, mostly boys, build social skills. Really basic stuff like learning how to start a conversation, pay attention to nonverbal cues, give a compliment, and manage differences of opinion. Things that I now understand are more than “skills.” These skills are the bones of civility.
It sounds straight forward enough, but think about trying to build a civil mind in the era of ADHD. Patience is in scarce supply, and nearly every child with hyperactivity suffers from a massive intolerance for boredom. In these minds, excitement is compressed until the possibility of empathy – the fulcrum on which civility tilts – is all but suffocated.
Although the youngest among us may be most vulnerable to the civility drain, they are surely following the example of adults, many of us having long since abandoned any pretense toward civil behavior. Even in our interactions with kids themselves, we forget to be kind – the most important form of civility in the lives of children.
We want children to be kind (socially skilled) to each other as though it should magically spring from some essential goodness or naivet that is endemic to childhood. Yet it is the example set by grown-ups that releases a child from the burden of his own conscience, and whatever kindness he may come by naturally. This equation is seldom spelled out in the consulting rooms of psychologists because it’s bad for business.
Part of what makes civility so unappealing to many is that it mandates the giving of respect, something we are loathe to part with in an age where the idea of equality is taken quite literally. In such times, being civil is easily construed as a sign of weakness. Perhaps this is why it is so rare among young men. As a society we’ve learned to be patient with these growing pains, but is it possible to reclaim civility once the horse has left the barn? In Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, an aging sheriff reflects on the savage violence taking place in his west Texas town, explaining, “It starts when you begin to overlook bad manners. Any time you quit hearin’ Sir and Ma’am the end is pretty much in sight.”
This may be an astute observation of civility’s slippery slope, and the need to monitor our kids. Surely this is important, if not brutally unrewarding work. If you’ve ever tried to moderate the quips and sarcasm of five teenagers jammed into an SUV, you know exactly what I mean.
The expulsion of idle time from the circuits of our daily flow is shaping a new topography of mind. These days boredom isn’t just dull, it’s undesirable, out of sync with a culture where people’s feelings can be affected by emoticons . Almost none of us enjoy boredom, yet the availability of mental space that boredom signifies goes hand in hand with a civil mind. Boredom is the oxygen of civility. It may be our last hope for a moment of unstructured peace. A chance to breathe and consider those we care about, before civility drowns in a tsunami of thrills, and there’s no air left to think.
For most children, September is a time of transition, and that often adds up to stress. This is a good time of year for parents and teachers to be on the lookout for signs of anxiety and depression. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that up to 75% of depressed kids never receive any treatment. One of the major reasons for this is that among kids, internalizing disorders such as depression or anxiety are much less likely to attract attention than externalizing disorders like behavior problems or ADHD. Why? Because internalizing disorders are much less bothersome to other than externalizing disorders. Simply put, a child who disrupts class or family life more quickly attracts attention than a child who feels sad or worries silently.
As reported by psychologist Jeremy Fox and colleagues in Clinical Psychology, Science and Practice (September, 2008), providing Mental health checkups in school is rapidly gaining in popularity. These checkups typically involve administering a brief questionnaire which provides a snapshot of a child’s mental status. TeenScreen is one popular tool but others are emerging as well.
Much of the benefit of this type of preventive care is that it educates kids about their own moods. Years of practice has taught me that young people don’t usually do a very good job of discriminating their own feelings, including changes in their mood. However, when we provide teens with a scale that encourages them to rate their mood frequently over a period of time, they begin to see that their mood does in fact change from day to day. That simple recognition can be a very important component of instilling hope.
Mental health checkups are providing an invaluable form of preventive care, and moving depression out of the closet – where it might otherwise thrive.
Ask Dr. Cox
Q. I am writing to you about my brother who was born in 1988. We stayed apart from our dad since 1997, and lived with our mom and an elder sister. Dad used to work in the middle east. In 2004, my brother stole a few items from a department store. A year went by, then there was cash being mysteriously removed from my brother’s chequing acct. On asking, he said he did not know, then after a month or so, he confessed that some boys forced him to give them money from his account for no apparent reason. We still don’t know if he used to remove the cash for his own use or for the street boys who were “forcing” him. He also lies a lot to us, especially my mother. He is 20, his credit’s full, no money in his chequing acct when he earns good money working full time at a bank. If asked where he spends the money, he doesn’t tell us anything. My mother is fed up and we all are disheartened by his behaviour. I am his sister and want him to have a positive future for himself. I don’t know what to do! Alliya H., Montreal, Quebec
The first thing to understand is that your brother, though he may act immature, is an adult. Some people begin to compulsively steal things during adolescence. Often, they could afford to buy those things, but stealing becomes a kind of addiction. Sadly, it can lead to more serious criminal behavior – almost as if the individual needs to discover how far he can go before getting caught. However, it sounds less like an emotionally based kleptomania than a situation where he is desperate to get money. I’m hoping and assuming that you’ve offered him help if the “street boys” are extorting him.
Although you may desperately want to correct your brother’s behavior, there is little you can do to make him live his life differently. People whose money mysteriously comes and goes often have a drug or gambling problem, although you don’t indicate any such belief in your question. It may seem harsh to say, but I think the best thing for your family to do is adopt an attitude of “ tough love.” Basically, you need to move out of a codependent relationship with your brother. If he sabotages his own life, you must do everything possible to preserve the quality of your own lives. This includes letting go of the need to oversee his finances, and accepting his lies.
Q. My daughter is almost 10 and my husband and I feel like tim is running out of we want to get her into a good gir;ls school. We want to do it but it’s a big expense for us. I just can’t stand the idea of my daughter missing out on things other girls might get from the right school. Do you have any opinion on this? Am I overreacting? We live north of Los Angeles and there aren’t that many choices. Nell M., Los Angeles, CA
As you may know, there is lots of discussion about single sex schools these days, especially in the U.S., where we have been slower to see the advantages of single sex education than in some other countries. Although I have visited many boys’ schools, just recently I had the pleasure of visiting a girls’ school, St. Mildred’s – Lightbourn, in Oakville, Ontario. If you visited SMLS, I think you would quickly grasp the enormous benefits of a girls’ school. This isn’t a commercial for SMLS, because they aren’t a boarding school, so unless you’re prepared to move to Canada you’ll have to find an option closer to home.
We’ve heard exhaustive stories from reporters and scientists about how the science and math gap, between boys and girls is a myth. Maybe so, but the real issue is that so many girls elect not to enter the physical sciences or other math-based vocations. They could do the work perfectly well, but don’t choose those careers as often as boys. The reasons for that phenomenon are complex, but girls’ schools are a very bright light with respect to providing an antidote to the problem. For example, students at SMLS are actively involved in robotics, and there is a clear commitment to teaching science in innovative ways that engage girls.
Clearly there are some advantages to a coed school as well, but it is my strong sense that the momentum of single-sex education, particularly in the U.S., has only just begun. For some kids it’s a great option – and isn’t that what we want? – Great options for all students.
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