From Second Hand Smoke…Throughout the 60s my brother and I endured endless hours of misery in the smoke-filled backseat of the family car. No amount of complaining alleviated the fog of smoke we sat in. I suspect our complaints were experienced as the ungrateful whining of children who didn’t appreciate those Sunday afternoon rides meant to ‘entertain’ us.
In fairness it wasn’t until the 80s the public started to respond to alarms about passive smoke. Not until 2000 was smoking banned on all major airlines, and legislation protecting workers from second hand smoke didn’t pass until 2004. My parents did not mean harm to their children. They remained oblivious to the impact their smoking might have on us for a long time.
To Auditory Anger.But this is a different time. We’re conscious of medical dangers parents would never expose their kids to. And yet, as the roar of rage blanketing the airwaves and public discourse ratchets up, I’ve started to wonder what kids experience in their auditory environment. What are we exposing them to, oblivious to the impact?
Consider this. Kids are exposed to high decibel, full blown fury coming from news coverage that’s background noise in the house; partisan sniping among friends and relatives talking on the phone or with one another; BOLDFACE CAPS IN COLORon social media that is its own kind of yelling; loud political ads and late night sharp-tongued comedians on TV. Is the rageful soundscape they live this generation’s version of second hand smoke?
Is the steady noise of angry argument causing young people to feel the powerlessness my brother and I experienced in the back seat of the family car? How can they escape? Where can they go and what do they do to protect themselves from an angry world that shows no sign of letting up? Kids report rising anxiety on the one hand (what to make of it all?) and apathy and a turning away from the angry adult world on the other. There’s no ‘protecting’ kids from the free floating anger that permeates their lives–peers, celebrities, role models, relatives, and strangers all seem to be using their “outside voices” all the time!
How We Contribute…I try to limit my own contribution to the environment of anger when I can. And recently I had an opportunity that made me think about how we all have a responsibility to establish a more civil climate for kids to live in. It started (as too often it does) on Facebook. I’m not active on that platform–it’s too angry in its weird remote soul. But I was in a mood and posted a point of view about a current political situation. I don’t have a lot of followers and don’t stir up much controversy. But this day something I said rankled one of my followers and he came back at me with a snarky comment, to which I ALMOST reacted in an equally snarky way that would inevitably have set off a nasty exchange. For whatever reason, my better angel showed up and instead I sent a note suggesting we talk directly, in real time. My follower was an old schoolmate, a good guy I’d not spoken with in many years. We ended up having an exchange in private and with a depth of respect that would have been lost had I given in to my initial nastier impulse. I don’t think we changed one another’s mind. But I have a much more nuanced understanding of his POV and a respect for who is — a multi-dimensional man. I hope he sees the same in me. We share a lot in vision, if not in the journey to attain the vision.
I share this story only to say we have a choice. We can fuel the anger consuming our days. Or we can take responsibility for lowering the decibel level of anger our kids–and we–are drowning in.
I’m no Pollyanna. There’s plenty to be enraged about. As a nation we’ve been manipulated into extreme points of view dividing us by gender, race, economics, education, politics, regions–whom we follow on late night TV and on the news. I have strong views about social and economic justice, equity and a dozen other topics that could be screamed about in lots of forums. But this uncivil scream-a-thon is unsustainable in a democracy. Or more to the point, democracy is unsustainable in such an environment. Civil discourse must be reclaimed.
What We Can Do…Years ago I worked for a manager who was instrumental in helping me see the nature of “being right” in a new light. One day, full of righteous indignation, I tried to make a case for firing an employee. The manager, with experience and an understanding that surpassed my own limited wisdom at that time, heard me out then said, “You’re right. But do you really need to be dead right?” He was trying to teach me that winning–a position or tactical victory–could be more costly than taking time to find more creative solutions to whatever issue I faced. Nationally it’s a lesson we could all use.
So in the interest of reclaiming a more civil discourse, I’m going to reach out, not just react. In the face of anger, I’m going to ask questions, invite dialogue, try to listen. I’m going to host dinners and facilitate real conversation among diverse friends. And I’m going to work on developing a new language of dissent. I don’t intend to let go of values that matter in my soul. I am not going to concede to evil. But I know that unless we actively look for ways to make the soundscape for kids–for us all–a place in which we can think and talk again…we will have lost the communities we love–and perhaps irreparably damaged a generation growing up in the sound of rage.
Audible Environments and Kids. Here are a few suggestions for helping kids navigate a world in which everyone seems mad, all day, every day.
Little ones–4-6. Children sense tension, dis-ease, and agita–in their family, in the car, at play dates. They may have no idea their parents, aunts and uncles have different views on Dr. Ford; Judge Kavanaugh; Congressional candidates or dueling tax policies, but they pick up on snarky comments, shallow breathing and the loud, animated expression of differences. However justified adult political passion is, the emotional fallout for kids filters through their lives in powerful ways. To mitigate an environment of anger for little ones…
- Acknowledge feelings. “How are you feeling Susie? Mom’s feeling a little short-tempered and tired this afternoon, let’s do something to make us happy!” This is not a suggestion to deny feelings, but to note in an authentic way what is true, then actively shift the emotional tone of the moment to a more light-hearted reprieve.
- Share a little calm. Turn off the TV and offer up some quiet music and a story. Practice breathing. Teaching kids to practice Flower Breath, and Bear Breath is a fun, easy way to begin. (Email me if you want to know more about how to practice this:)
- Talk–and live–values of listening and tolerance. It’s never too early to introduce ‘the Golden Rule,’ emphasize kindness, practice listening skills, or introduce the language of basic manners–these are behaviors that civil society is built on. Reclaim them for your family.
Precocious ones, 7-9. Children are vigilant, tuned in; ready to emulate grown-ups they admire. And they have a fine radar for truth. If you’re feeling agitated about the news; political differences with friends or loved ones, or at a loss for how to cope with the world, limit your own exposure to the forces ramping up your anxiety and discontent. This is not the same as dropping out and failing to vote. It’s taking charge of the extent to which you allow the external world to manipulate your sense of well-being. For kids…
- Tell truth. If you’re feeling ‘under siege’ by the day’s news, say so. “Dad is reacting to a story on the news he’s unhappy about. There’s nothing you did to make him mad and we’ll change the subject in a few minutes”(then do). When kids don’t know what’s going on, they make things up. If they think you’re mad because of something they did or said or didn’t do, it will be confusing and your anger will be contagious.
- Practice mindfulness training. Mallika Chopra, daughter of Deepak Chopra, has created a wonderful new children’s book, Just Breathe, that the whole family can use to insert a little calm into the home. Vaccinate the family against free-floating anger.
- Build the language of emotions—and courtesy. Whether it’s the podcast you listened to on the way home or a conversation with a co-worker you wish had kept her political views to herself, try not to slander the co-worker with names you don’t want your 8-year-old to use at school. If someone was a real jerk say, ‘she has a very different point of view than I do and I’m trying to understand it.” Or if you’re enraged about something to the point of wanting to organize a protest march, talk about the ways people demonstrate their differences in a peaceful manner. The point is to build an environment of calm for kids; not create a world of anger in your living room.
- Go high. Teaching kids to take the high ground in the face of ugly behavior is a challenge. But we all have to reclaim that discipline if democracy is going to survive. Interrupt unacceptable language and behavior–kids learn from watching. Make sure they watch you take the high ground.
Tweens, 10-13. Plenty of middle school kids participated in the National School Walkout after the Parkland High school shootings. They got news of the shootings on Snapchat, WhatsApp Instagram and tweets, etc.. There’s no holding back info from these kids–they have their own outrage at the world these days. Don’t negate the legitimacy of their feelings, but give them an environment of calm in which to talk candidly and reflectively. Model reason, not drama; contemplation, not hysteria; action, not unfocused revenge.
- Help them channel outrage. Kids too angry or upset to think or talk limit their problem-solving capacity. Help by asking, “What do you think you can do to make a difference?” How else might we think about this? The reason is hard to nurture–but essential to practice. Show them how to turn anger into positive action.
- Develop new paradigms and language. Zero sum, win/lose attitudes are undermining us all. Introduce new ways of talking about topics that trigger anger: where is a convergence of solutions possible? What fusions of a point of views might be invented? What is a third way? An innovative resolution? Just because the US Senate has lost its ability to invent, is no reason not to reclaim the capacity in your own home.
- Give them clay, crayons, paint, or other tools for creation. Encourage them to express feelings in non-verbal ways. (Join them!)
- Give examples of how YOU plan to ‘make a difference, not just complain.” (Vote, write letters, get involved in the community, meet with other parents; direct anger towards a solution.) Help them find ways to be proactive.
- Interrupt drama. There’s a certain level of excitement in outrage that middle school kids can find satisfying. Try not to model drama yourself. If you need to vent (at the TV, to your spouse or friends) write a letter and stick it in a drawer.
Teens, 14+. Teens check in and out at will but don’t miss much. And as hormones ramp up, emotions can run hot; anger is a natural response to things they feel are unjust, unfair, inexplicable.
- Insist on facts. Whether it’s fact-checking together, reading papers from different points of view or sharing podcasts, do your best to bring real data and information into your home. Make it a rumor free, no fake news, zone.
- Acknowledge gratitude. Resilience is the ability to bounce back–from failure, disappointment, despair. We do that by noticing possibility–even in the darkest moments. Share your gratitude and encourage them to do the same–each day. It makes a difference.
- Nurture empathy and compassion. Bullies are often mean kids who’ve been dissed and disappointed in ways we cannot see. Help kids develop less reactive, more inquisitive behaviors: what’s going on for that child, that person? In that situation? How can we bridge the divide? What would reaching out and building a bridge look like? Nurturing emotional intelligence so kids can see and understand other points of view is vital to building community and an energizing democracy.
- Ask them what THEY think? What do they want to see in the world, in the future?
Regenerate. In the face of anger and despair finding sources of inspiration and regeneration are vital. NASA is celebrating 60 years of exploration and just released a documentary, Above and Beyond. Take the kids and find a big screen to soak it in. Take a hike–the parks are emptying of tourists now and quiet peace is in full swing. Turn off screens at home. Listen to the quiet. Make a new soundscape for us all.