When “Civility” Begets Incivility

As the father of seven children, I distinctly remember a handful of occasions that were formative for not only one of the kids in need of discipline or punishment for their own infraction, but that also served as a precedent setting example for the other kids. Instances when forbearance would have amounted to neglect, because the underlying message of “civility and patience” was likely to foster, if not encouragement of the behavior in the other children; at bare minimum an attitude of normalization.

An unprovoked and angry child lashing out in physical or emotional violence against a sibling or parent would fall into this category, for instance. Allowing such outbursts to go undisciplined and unpunished is to allow the offending child and the rest of the family to go un-cared-for. Failure of the parent to act in such a case is not something the offending child can be blamed for, it is dereliction of parenting itself.

The family unit consisting of parents and offspring is often referred to as the smallest social unit and the following quote by Ashley Montagu is widely accepted as true:

“The family is the basis of society. As the family is, so is the society, and it is human beings who make a family-not the quantity of them, but the quality of them.”

Parents, good parents, not only want their children to like them, they want to be able to like their children, too. They want to demonstrate and inculcate what it means to be good human beings.

In unpleasant moments when a child commits an act that requires disciplinary action from the parents, the parents take the necessary response with an eye towards the future well-being of the offending child and of the family as a whole. They are willing to endure the momentary loss of positive feelings and affections from the punished child to achieve long term values like respect, stability, unity, and love within the family. They are displaying a narrative about what the family is like. They are creating emotional security by enabling a sense of confident well-being.

Our country is at one of these watershed moments. The American Parent, which I will call the Democratic Institutions extant, has tolerated the tantrum of a spoiled child, allowing it to go undisciplined and unpunished. While true the spoiled child is no longer a minor and is ready to leave the family home, the memory of an adult-aged child pitching a 3 year-old’s fit is not going to leave when he does.

The other children, having been brought up to believe that there were rules that applied to everyone equally, have been watching from the sidelines to see what the parent will do about the fit-throwing child. They’ve watched and heard as this child has begun to call the parent and the other children ugly names, even blaming them for his bad behavior.

The children are now pretty convinced the parent isn’t going to do anything at all about it, and the older ones wonder what that portends, while the younger are imagining what they’ll be able to get away with.

Does the parent seriously think this scene will ”go away” when the child leaves home, that it won’t have a malingering effect on the children who remain?

The older children have heard a parent saying we must be ”civil” towards the brat, perhaps reach out to him, that he will grow out of it, and soon we won’t have to tolerate this behavior. And each time the parent uses the word civil, the younger children know that the parent, refusing to punish the bad-behaving sibling, has completely lost site of what civil used to mean to the family.

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