No more ugly talk
With sniping comments everywhere, how do we teach our children that some things are better left unsaid?
You learn early, as a journalist and writer, to nurture a thick skin, to know that criticism of your writing or opinion is not a criticism of your entire personality.

You also learn really early that some people are actually just plain cantankerous and love nothing more than to snipe and snap.

Now that comments on online stories – and not formal letters to the editor – are the way in which readers communicate with writers, I am sometimes appalled at the vitriol, the bitterness, the pure, unmitigated anger of some of responses to even the most innocuous of comments. Often it is clear that the reader hasn’t  bothered to properly read or think about what was written, and they rip into writers in a sort of frenzy, usually without the courage to identify themselves.

How people love to just tear into one another.

Rather like school children do. The chubby boy at school is inelegantly called ‘Fatso’ or ‘Blubber’. Girls in Grade 2 who don’t write so neatly have this pointed out mercilessly by their friends. Slow runners are mocked. Ten-year olds who are afraid of the dark – a fear spontaneously shared on a camp weekend – are forever ‘Scaredy boy’.

I realise that teasing and jibing are part of the landscape of childhood. Saying something as they see it is a small child’s special privilege, a way of testing their perceptions and observations in the world. But I honestly believe that it should not be left to fester into an adult belief that it is alright to go around saying ugly things just because you think them.

Think before speaking

I started telling my children very early to try and think about what they’re about to say and ask themselves whether it might be hurtful to someone else and then ask themselves whether it was necessary to say it.

I told them they could say anything they wanted to me, no matter how ‘ugly’ it seemed, but that it was not okay to say it in front of the people they were talking about. That way the person in question would not be unnecessarily hurt, plus we could discuss in privacy what it was the children found so off-putting or laughable about another person, and often it presented an opportunity to chat about how people are different, and whether different means ‘less’ or  ‘worthy of derision’.

Thinking rude thoughts about other people is part of the human condition. Saying every ugly thing that rises to the surface is simply unevolved. I am not advocating hypocrisy or dishonesty. I embrace constructive criticism and honest appraisal by people who know how to speak plainly but kindly.

I do wish, however, that more adults would learn – like my children have – that if they don’t have anything nice to say, to just keep their mouths closed. And teach their kids to do the same.

Do we know how to speak our minds constructively? And what should we teach children?

Read more by Karin Schimke

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