Middle-school boys aren't exactly a group known for demonstrating empathy. There are all kinds of potential reasons for that. Peer pressure to be tough. Believing they need to bully or they will be bullied. The portion of the brain that regulates empathy hasn't sufficiently matured.
No excuses. Any way you look at it, the behavior of the Greece, NY, school bus bullies who taunted their bus monitor was cruel. But what happened next is even more remarkable.
The boys' actions were recorded on a cell phone video camera, uploaded to YouTube, went viral and became national news. Then, in response to a fundraising appeal on indiegogo.com, more than 30,000 Americans donated $650,000 for the bus monitor's early retirement. In a single incident, America's dark side and our goodness, fueled by cyber-technology, played out on the national stage.
It's a new day, but it's an old story. It reminds me of another unassuming bus rider who was poorly treated named Rosa Parks.
It also reminds me of the fable about a Cherokee grandfather and grandson: "There are two wolves fighting inside of me. One is full of hate, anger and violence; the other is full of kindness, respect and love," the grandfather says. "Which wolf will win?" the grandson asks. To which the grandfather responds, "The one that I feed."
Which one will we feed? How will we cultivate a culture of respect? What made our nation unique at its founding was a fundamental respect for both equality and the rights of the individual. When these values are widely embraced, honored, and balanced, an environment is created that breeds respect. When they are not, we breed bullies.
Our founding fathers laid the foundation for everyone to be treated with dignity. But America's got a lot of bullies even today -- among children and adults -- so something is out of balance. Since the '70s, a decline has occurred in the influence of school, religion and family as the top influencers on teenagers. Through surveys, teenagers tell us that media and friends have taken their place. We should believe them.
At the same time, violence and disrespect have increased in schools and society. The Parent's Television Council blames television, saying: "While television is not directly responsible for this behavior, it and other forms of media have helped shape a cultural acceptance of violence and disrespect for authority." We should believe them, too.
Like it or not, that means The Real Housewives of New Jersey are influencing young people today. So is the never-ending character bashing done by our political candidates. The constant din of negativity has affected all of us and has made America meaner. What's to counter those influences?
In my work with young people in schools, I've noticed an interesting phenomenon among Gen Y. In many ways, they are sensitive to injustice. I see young people generously volunteering their time and giving back to their communities to improve the lives of others. I see them take a stand for the rights of certain groups of people who are perceived as having been victimized. I see them being respectful in organized situations.
But I see less respect in one-on-one, informal interactions with others. I see young people who want to be respected first, before they are willing to give respect. That tells me something is amiss in their moral compass.
Parents and teachers need to work together to counter the negative forces feeding our children. We may not be able to pray in schools, but parents and teachers can still lead discussions about the values that have shaped our American hopes and dreams since our country was founded. Teachers can link values such as respect and doing the right thing to literature, history, art, music and even to chemistry and math.
Parents can do the same in family interactions. Children are known to often ask "why?" and parents to have responded, "Because I said so." While that's not the worst answer in the world, a better answer is, "Because it's the right thing to do and I believe in doing the right thing." Or, "Because I believe in respect and I want to teach you to be respectful."
It's not easy. The message needs to be balanced. Young people need to understand their rights, too, so they know when it is appropriate to speak out against an adult. Too much respect has been shown to those who have misused their authority in the classroom, on the athletic field or in the church to harm children for their own selfish purposes.
When we as individuals -- with leadership from our nation's teachers -- help our children to define who they are and what they stand for, we are not only raising stronger individuals, we are raising a stronger and wiser generation and helping America rebuild its moral infrastructure. Our values are at least as important as bridges and roads. They are the real assets and resources that define America today and will define it tomorrow.
Let's make this bus ride another turning point on the road to fulfilling America's promise of equality and respect for the individual.
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