This week on social media there has been an explosion in vitriol as people shouted loudly at the ‘table’ to have their opinion heard. Articulate discourse, tolerance and respectful expression of a differing personal viewpoint was crushed beneath a wave of slandering, shouty, simplistic abuse. Cyber trolling in the extreme.
As I became aware of these events, these proclamations of judgement I witnessed the personal impact cyber bullying has on social media users even as adults. I began to wonder if the ability to be tolerant and respect a differing opinion has become lost amongst many in our community.
As a parent and educator I reflected on how I am teaching my own children to express their personal opinion while tolerating the viewpoint of others. I reflected on whether other parents were doing the same or whether it was a skill which had become overlooked and outpaced in the rush to make our children resilient.
I live in what you could consider an opinionated household. From politics to religion and environmental issues you can be pretty certain that we have discussed it around the dining room table amidst encouraging our 4 year old to use a knife and fork. Hubby and I believe in the value of sharing important social issues in an age appropriate way with our children. As a result our Miss 8 has been dealt some super-sized portions of social justice issues and opinions.
I admit to being proud to hear her question information she hears, to see her become a critical thinker and to hear her espouse her own opinions on topics from being vegetarian to gay marriage. The ability to analyse information presented to you, formulate your own opinion rather than repeating textbook the ideas passed down to you, and then share your opinion is an important life skill. The ability to step outside their own comfort zone, to listen and respect others is a skill needed as we move into the future more than ever as we experience an increasingly diverse society.
However with the ability to formulate their own articulate opinion comes the balance of being able to share that opinion respectfully. To sit and consider a different viewpoint, to be tolerant and listen to the differing opinions of classmates and friends without implementing the very basic tools of putdowns and sarcasm.
We want our children to be self-advocates. To grow up and know how to share an opinion in a respectful way so that they may be considered rather than ignored for offensiveness. Social competence is a key factor in determining success and happiness as an adult, more so than academic skills.So as parents how do we support this?
Sharing a perspective is not a bad thing
We need to allow children the freedom to express their personal perspective. Children can be very afraid and anxious about being ‘wrong’ or offending the important people in their lives. Children are people pleasers and can easily conform to the opinions of others. Gentle support to share their own viewpoint needs to be supported. Starting with gestures or shaking their head yes or no to a question is the first step.
Teaching an informed opinion
‘Because I said so’ is not a phrase that is going to teach kids how to express an informed opinion. Children need to be shown that an informed opinion is one that can be backed with facts. This idea of supporting a viewpoint or an argument helps kids assess the opinions of others and helps them decide which opinions or information they will absorb while forming their own ideas.
Like I said before dinner table discussions at our house include everyone. We began with the game Table topics where a conversation starter was used to prompt us all to think about our response to a question. While a game it reinforced that everyone had the right to share a response and we sat and listened with interest in what people said. Our children need to learn this skill explicitly.
Bring up topics
Without us even raising topics kids will know which are ‘taboo’ or ‘hot topics’. Kids know what words are not meant to be used when referring to others – words that are discriminatory based on sex or nationality or disability. Kids pick up these messages whether we raise the topics or not. So don’t wait for your kids to raise the issue. Often this can be too late when a seed of an idea has already been planted and sprouted. It isn’t too early to start a conversation. Talk about the world and how different people live.
Express without rudeness
We all know one child who can’t wait to show off their developed opinions on social issues with adults around. The child who enjoys having the adult spotlight and then doesn’t understand when adults respond with laughter or comments of “they are precocious” or worse “wow that kid is rude!”. The child who hasn’t learnt how to deliver their opinions.
Children need to learn how to share an opinion not only with what they say but how they say it. The tone they use, the body language and the facial expressions. A friendly voice and making eye contact are important points.
Our kids are not being raised in a tolerant society. There are many stereotypes being perpetuated by the media that need to be challenged and unpacked with our children. “We don’t speak like that!!” or “that is not appropriate” does nothing to educate our children as to why or what is wrong with the statement. It is not enough. We need to unpack stereotypes by challenging our own beliefs and presenting our children with facts and information that is accurate and balanced.
“La la la I can’t hear you” -Dealing with feedback
If we are equipping our children with a mouthful and heartful of opinions then we need to skill them in dealing with feedback. A “la la la – I can’t hear you” attitude is not going to get our kids very far. An angry attacking response will guarantee that they will be left with few friends to hear their opinions. Kids benefit from the practice of developing a ‘for’ and ‘against’ balance to when someone gives them feedback. Our children need to learn that changing their opinion or considering the viewpoint of others is normal. Listening to the opinions of others is not weakness.
I statements rule – giving feedback to friends
Children need to learn the difference between opinions and fact. This is a life lesson that many adults have forgotten. Your opinions are not always a fact. Children benefit from making I statements such as “I think, I feel, I believe” and when listening “I am hearing you say …” or “I understand you think….”.
Give them the words
Our children also need to be supported to understand that you can still be friends while having a different opinion. You do not need to hold the same opinion as all your friends. This can be hard. We all know what peer pressure feels like. We do not want our kids to grow up with the idea of “we are only friends with people who think the same way” and to treat others who have a different opinion as the enemy. Using the I statements lets kids share thoughts with a degree of personal ownership. Phrases like “Here’s what I think” or “how about this” or the simple but clear “I disagree” empowers our kids.
I am not saying this task is easy. It is ongoing and can feel relentless as a parent. However it is also a privilege. When we look around at the behaviour of adults and dislike it we need to make sure we are equipping our children with the skills to do better and not repeat the same patterns of behaviour.