April 27, 1998
Teach children respect, not rage
by Kimberlee K. Kovach and Jack Hanna, of the American Bar Association Section of Dispute Resolution
We are a busy nation. We scurry around with our over-committed schedules and too often dispense with civility in our attempt to save time. We cut one another off in traffic. We bump into one another on the street. We pursue our personal and business agendas without the slightest regard for other people. Our children see that we care little for our fellow Americans.
Similarly, our politicians play scorched earth games with one another and generally demonstrate a supreme disregard for civil or reasoned discourse. There is no limit to what our leaders will say about one another. And guess what--there are children listening and watching. The average child entering fifth grade has seen hundreds of thousands of acts of violence on television. This barrage of violence continues throughout their school years, and many psychologists believe that it desensitizes youth to witnessing violence.
When this omnipresent violence is coupled with the demonstrated incivility among adults and the easy availability of guns in our nation, tragedy can result. The tragic incident in the Arkansas schoolyard provides us an excellent opportunity to reflect on what we can do, as a society, to lower the decibel level and encourage constructive discourse and problem solving. We must move toward a more civil society. We need to turn down the volume on our voices, remove the hate from our speech and begin to teach a radical concept to our children--that each human being has value, and that such value deserves respect.
Peer mediation programs in schools can help. They teach students how to listen to one another, how to solve conflict without violence, how to manage anger, communication skills, self respect, trust, and how to express feelings in a constructive manner. The American Bar Association is doing its small share to promote peer mediation--volunteer lawyers in 21 cities are working to bring peer mediation to schools that cannot afford to hire a private organization to implement a program, or that do not have volunteer programs available in their communities. Skills learned through peer mediation can be used not only in the schools, but in the students' neighborhoods and throughout their lives.
Peer mediation programs alone won't end school violence. But they can go a long way toward returning us to the more respectful approach to human interaction we seem to have lost. Until we increase the positives in the sum of influences on our children, we will be left with only the negatives--lack of civility in everyday interaction, media violence, gutter politics, and the ready availability of guns. The ABA encourages community leaders to start mediation programs in their schools, and to make training in conflict resolution available to parents.
May 5-9 is Law and Justice Week. For locations of free legal clinics, call (206) 340-2590.