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Teaching Civility in an F-Word Society

15 ways children learn respectful social behavior from adults

In upstate New York this week, a 68-year old bus monitor Karen Klein was called fat and ugly. Laced with profanity and cruel insults, four middle-school boys brought the woman to tears in one of the worst child-adult bullying incidents ever caught on videotape. Watched more than 4 million times on YouTube, many of the online comments were as uncivil as the video itself.

The Psychology of Civility

The foundational virtue of citizenship, civility is behavior that recognizes the humanity of others, allowing us to live peacefully together in neighborhoods and communities. The psychological elements of civility include awareness, self-control, empathy, and respect. If we believe that all human beings “are created equal” and have worth, then civility is an obligation to act in ways that honor that belief. It requires us to treat others with decency, regardless of our differences. It demands restraint and an ability to put the interests of the common good above self-interests.

Civility’s Decline

It’s impossible to know if civility has really declined because we can’t measure it scientifically. But by all subjective measures, most Americans believe it has severely decreased over the past two decades. Stories like the ridiculed bus monitor may seem unusually distasteful, but this kind of behavior occurs daily in U.S. classrooms and homes, and on the web.

There are several hypotheses for this decline. First, as society has become more informal, some ethics scholars suggest there are no longer agreed upon rules for respectful behavior. Norms have become unclear and fuzzy. The web has produced an etiquette-free zone where people can post anonymous and uncivil criticisms with ease. With anonymity, there is no responsibility.

Today, name-calling and vulgarity fill the halls of Congress, negative political ads attack character over substance, and reality show television encourages self-regard over the common good. Shows like “The Apprentice” and “Survivor” highlight back-stabbing behavior as admirable and winning qualities. With the advent of cable news, we can choose the network that suits our political beliefs, only hearing one side of the debate. In short, children are exposed to rudeness, vulgarity, and violence that would be unthinkable in previous generations.

Do we really need to ask ourselves where children learn civility? Children model adult behavior on television and in real life. And they replicate language they learn online. It is not uncommon to hear “F_ _ _ You” spoken by children just learning to talk. That’s because children are systemically connected to everything around them. The world is their learning environment. We are their teachers.

How Adults Teach Children Respectful Social Behavior

Admittedly, there are many roadblocks to reversing the downward trend of civility in today's society. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. In fact, as parents, teachers, politicians, television producers, and others who impact children’s lives, we have a responsibly to do so. Why? Studies show that incivility leads to violence, unhealthy communities, and societies paralyzed by conflict and political division.

Here are 15 ways children learn civility from adults:

  1. Lead by example.
  2. Think about the impact of our words and actions on others first.
  3. Treat children and adults with the respect that we expect them to treat others.
  4. Apologize when we are wrong.
  5. Disagree with intelligence, humor, and civil discourse.
  6. Don’t let anger and emotion get in the way of listening to others.
  7. Teach character strengths, like respect and empathy, at home and in classrooms.
  8. Demand civility of our politicians and public servants.
  9. Set ground rules for civil behavior at home and in classrooms.
  10. Challenge people’s views but don’t attack the person.
  11. Be tolerant of people who are different from us.
  12. Praise others for their civil behavior, regardless of their viewpoints.
  13. Empower children to take a stand against bullying.
  14. Remind kids often why we should be civil.
  15. Teach kids how to become engaged citizens.

This list is not extensive or complete. Please share your thoughts, suggestions, and additions. What can adults do to teach respectful social behavior? And, yes, civility is appreciated!


Marks, J. (1996, April 22). The American uncivil wars: How crude, rude, and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners and why that hurts politics and culture. US News and World Report, 66-72.

Peck D. L. (2002). Civility: A contemporary context for a meaningful historical concept. Sociological Inquiry, 72, 358-375.

Scales, S. (2010, Spring). Teaching Civility in the Age of Jerry Springer. Teaching Ethics, 1-20.

Photo Credits: Clay Frame; Alvaro Cancino

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement.

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©2012 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

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