Teachable Moments from YouTube to the Kitchen Table

Posted: Sep 16, 2009 12:01 AM
Teachable Moments from YouTube to the Kitchen Table

Through emotional outbursts in virtually every corner of our culture, from the halls of government to popular music to professional sports, famous folks recently have offered up a veritable smorgasbord of bad taste on which to comment.

Summing up: People are rude.

The flurry of incivility that lately has found its way to Youtube’s “most viewed” list, ought to make us worry about the messages our children are getting, given that Youtube is the most popular web site for kids ages 8 to 18. It’s time to turn our kitchen tables into learning labs and take advantage of this week’s teachable moments.

To review:

* South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson’s now-famously shouted objection, “You lie!” during President Obama’s Congressional speech.

* Serena Williams’ profanity-laced tirade at a line judge, as well as Roger Federer’s snarky backtalk to an umpire, both during the US Open Tennis Championships.

* Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech during the MTV Video Awards, in which he decries the loss of the award by competitor Beyonce Knowles.

* Finally, President Obama’s supposedly off-the-record comment calling Mr. West a “jackass” for his MTV antics. (More bad manners: ABC news reporter Terrence Moran conveying this indiscreet comment by way of a twitter post to his 1-million-plus followers).

There are enough bad examples here to fill a semester in the kitchen, starting with: Incivility begets incivility. A week ago, while accepting the apology of Rep. Wilson, the President seemed to wish for a higher standard of behavior among citizens. In the span of six days, he apparently called someone else a jackass. (Remember that the practice of good manners doesn’t consider the truth of such a statement, just the propriety of speaking it aloud).

To put a fine point on the lessons we might consider, I consulted an expert, Mr. P. M. Forni, a respected professor or romance languages and literature at Johns Hopkins University, and also one of the nation’s pre-eminent authorities on civility, having authored two best-selling books on the subject. (The paperback version of his second book, “The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude” was released this month from MacMillon).

How would an expert such as Mr. Forni use the current crop of banalities to offset the underlying lack of civility they represent?

“Parents must transform these bad examples into assets as they use these instances to teach their children. We must explore how these actions would make us feel, and then find comparable examples in our daily lives that children can identify with,” Mr. Forni says.

Which is to say, imagine how Taylor Swift felt when her big moment was stolen by a selfish, thoughtless buffoon. Now imagine how your brother feels when he’s telling the family about his day, and you interrupt and make yourself the center of attention. “The basis of civility is to realize that we all bruise, inside and out. Mannerly behavior is that which protects the feelings of others.”

But what is the skill that promotes mannerly behavior? “Self restraint,” says Mr. Forni.

“We must instill self-restraint in our children. We do much to instill self-esteem in our children, but not much to reinforce self-restraint.” It was self-restraint that was lacking in every example of public incivility that unfolded during the past week.

Here’s another lesson suggested by Mr. Forni: – we must teach our children that this sort of behavior is wrong. “We have to make clear to children that those gestures in which high profile people find themselves is wrong…they did something wrong, something unfair to another person.”

“Our culture of extreme informality makes us vulnerable to crossing into incivility,” Mr. Forni says.

Imagine if we simply resurrected the notion that it’s wrong to treat people badly, and that self-restraint and a more formal standard of behavior are ways to avoid such actions. We’d be living in a much more civilized culture.

But then what would we watch on Youtube?