As I sat in an outdoor area I overheard an argument between a teenage boy and his mother. The son refused to do what his mother asked. After shouting back and forth at each other for a few minutes, the mother ended the encounter by yelling “F____ you, Kevin!” and storming away. I was pretty unsettled. Surely a decade ago when Kevin was a cherub-faced little boy being tucked in at night, his mother could never have conceived of this exchange. How had things deteriorated so badly?
As a mother of three teens and a tween, I can vouch for the teen years as times of sudden conflict over unexpected topics. But these episodes don't have to conclude with civility lying bleeding in the gutter. Civility, the practice of treating others with kindness and respect, is foundational to society and the Christian home. Why? Because it lives out the Great Command. When Christ admonished us to love our neighbors as ourselves he pointed us toward not just fair but preferential treatment of others. We want others to treat us better than we deserve. So we should treat others that way. However, as parents we sometimes forget to regard our children as our neighbors. And we end up like Kevin and his mother.
We tell each other to expect such uncivil exchanges during the teen years. What parent of small children hasn't been warned, “Just wait until they're teenagers”? But this is precisely the problem: too many parents wait until the teenage years to realize the importance of civility, understanding its value only as we watch it walk out the door.
Fluent in Contempt
Civil children come from civil environments. Many parents feel free to speak to their children with a level of incivility they would not use with anyone else they know. They bark orders. They raise their voices. They use sarcasm and contempt: “Seriously? That's how you cleaned your room?” They poison civil language with contemptuous tone: “Ryan, please put your shoes on.” They patronize. They roll their eyes and sigh. They construct a cocktail of word choice, tone, and body language that they would not serve to a co-worker, friend, or stranger on the street. And then they serve it liberally to an under-aged consumer, the smallest neighbor they are called to love preferentially: their own child. Yet they are shocked to end up with an adolescent fluent in the language of contempt.
Many of us have wrongly defined our homes as places where parents should be respected instead of places where everyone should be respected. Children do not hold equal authority in the home, but they do hold equal personhood and dignity. They bear the image of God every bit as much as their mothers and fathers. As such, they deserve kind words, level tone, and neutral body language. Even when they disobey. Children consistently treated with respect are far more likely to treat their parents with respect, no matter their stage of life.
Parents of young children, look toward the adolescent years by asking yourself some critical questions now:
- Do I address my child with kindness and respect, even in conflict?
- Do I use my tone and body language to communicate civility or contempt?
- Do I guard my child's exposure to media sources that model uncivil exchanges between children and adults?
- Do I teach my child that civil words are not merely “magic words” that achieve a desired result, but are “moral words” that obey the Great Command of preferential love?
Parents of uncivil adolescents, ask yourself the same questions. It is never too late to start doing the right thing. You may not be able to rein in your adolescent's incivility, but you will begin to obediently model preferential love toward him and to live at peace with him as far as it is possible.