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Column: Root out rude behavior by setting example for children

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Lessons from the boys of summer, the little boys of summer, that is, can help us encourage civil behavior among all of the kids in our lives.

And civility among young people is an issue. Surveys reveal that a majority of adults use words such as “rude” and “irresponsible” to describe today’s teens. Employers note a lack of work ethic and other basic character traits, especially among younger employees.

Teenagers themselves agree. Less than one-third of high school students say their classmates treat each other with respect, and only 20 percent say their classmates treat their teachers with respect.

While adults can lament a coarsened culture encouraging bad behaviors among today’s youth, the kids declare something different. In a survey of 3,000 teenagers, only one-fourth cited celebrities as the most important influence in their lives while nearly half pointed to parents, youth workers and other adults who they know personally.

In a separate question, 75 percent said their most enjoyable activity is hanging out with friends — underscoring the unique impact of peer influence.

Northwestern University sociologist Gary Alan Fine confirmed these dominant dynamics among youth and the people directly in their lives by observing little league baseball teams. Fine’s research examines the relationships we have in small groups –- including family, schools, community organizations and religious congregations -– and how those relationships shape behavior, including civil behavior.

In his book, “Tiny Publics,” Fine writes, “Social awareness begins with face-to-face behavior and continues as we learn to account for and make adjustments to the presence and the demands of others.” Small groups, the author argues, create “expectations of the shared and the proper” and are “spaces that shape personal choices.”

One of those spaces Fine studied is the Little League baseball diamond. After observing players on several teams, Fine discovered, “Life on the team provided different models that the players could use in other groups and in their understandings of how social life should transpire.”

For example, Fine describes how establishing an expectation around pre-game batting practice created civil behavior among the players. “One team decided that players would take batting practice in the order that they arrived at the field. Their decision encouraged people to be prompt. The routine also minimized disputes about the batting practice order.”

Small group influence can be either positive or negative. On one team, players discouraged each other from cursing. On another team, cursing among the players was accepted. “How morality is tied to behavior can differ substantially.”

Fine notes that just as the batting practice rule endorsed by the adult manager elicited positive behaviors, the cursing kids also took their cues from adults: “The adults, while not encouraging such comments, did not outlaw them, and they persisted throughout the season.”

Fine concludes, “Groups socialize individuals to communal standards. Group members are easily able to observe the actions of others. Because groups matter to members and shape their identity, the pressures of group life often have great consequences in channeling behavior.”

In “Hardwired to Connect,” the National Commission on Children At-Risk agrees that explaining how civil behavior in children and youth is developed by “authoritative communities” which “model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and to live a good life.”

The commission — consisting of medical experts, Ivy League researchers and national youth development leaders from the YMCA and Search Institute — asserts that the modeling of civil behavior relies on non-specialists.

Instead of celebrities or civic leaders, authoritative communities depend on parents, extended family, neighbors and community members. These caring adults exemplify and set clear rules and expectations, celebrate when these standards are met and immediately offer clear, even-tempered correction when they are not.

The best communication occurs when adults model the civil behavior they want young people to emulate, and members of the authoritative community realize that child development takes a long time.

While adults and even teenagers are concerned about civil behavior, Gary Alan Fine reminds us that the best solutions reside in the small groups of our families and our local communities. “These are the companions who not only are aware of each other but are invested in each other. They are significant others.”

Bill Stanczykiewicz is president and chief executive officer of the Indiana Youth Institute. Send comments to letters@ dailyjournal.net.

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