From school shootings to van attacks when will we learn that children learn what they live.

I live in Toronto, Canada and a few days ago we had a very unusual incident occur in our city – a van plowed through a major city sidewalk killing 10 people and injuring 14 others. Naturally the city is in shock as Toronto (Canada’s largest city) is seen as a very safe and friendly place. Of course everyone is asking why did it happen? What causes someone to commit such a horrific act?

I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, as well as the Parkland school shooting in Florida since it happened in February. I’ve had a few realizations that I feel compelled to share in the hopes that it will spark some action from parents and teachers.

The problem is not the shootings or random attacks…that is the manifestation of the actual problem. The issue is that there is not enough attention being put on educating kids to be kind, helpful and contributing members of society. Don’t get me wrong…parents and teachers DO do this, BUT in my opinion it is not enough and the kids that really need it are falling through the cracks.

I was born in the 70’s and I went to school in the 80’s and 90’s – we didn’t have school shootings back then and it wasn’t really something we heard in the news either. I didn’t grow up doing lockdown drills. So what does that tell you? Something has changed in the past 30-40 years that we need to pay attention to.

There is a lot of discussion on stricter gun laws and having armed staff in schools. However, the government, school boards and administrators are definitely focusing on the wrong target. These incidents are increasing in frequency and getting worse so it is just common sense that what is being done to protect our children is NOT working. We need to pay closer attention to those children who are falling through the cracks, long before it gets to the point of severe isolation and they consider acquiring a weapon or taking their deep frustration out on innocent victims.

From what I have observed, the emotional and social development of children is not being given enough attention. There is more stress in young people’s lives than there was 30 years ago and they are not as equipped to deal with it. Challenging peer relationships, online and offline bullying, family arguments and messy divorces are just a few of the many struggles young people are facing today.

If children don’t have a strong sense of belonging, positive friendships, high self-esteem and trust in the adults around them, they are bound to demonstrate all kinds of behaviours – some more extreme than others.

I’ve put together a few key actions and reminders to help refocus us as a community on some fundamental elements of parenting and child development. The reality is that children learn by how they live. They are watching all the adults in their lives constantly and like it or not, they do what you do. They don’t listen to what you say. They watch what you DO – your actions are the most powerful tool in shaping a young person’s viewpoint and approach to life.

1. You Need To Model The Behaviour You Want Children To Demonstrate
You cannot use the phrase “do what I say, not what I do” and expect children to follow suit. It just doesn’t work that way. If you don’t want your kids to smoke, don’t smoke. If you don’t want your kids to have an issue with alcohol, don’t drink excessively. If you want your kids to read more, they need to see you reading books. If you want your children to be kind, helpful and respectful, they need to see you doing these things consistently.

2. Don’t Argue In Front Of Children
This is a vitally important point, as so many children witness their parents fighting. Parents in particular are such a stability point for children that when they see you arguing it shakes everything they hold safe and secure. You are literally robbing them of their sense of stability in life and you are putting a huge sense of worry in their mind that the most important people for them (their parents) are not okay. As well, it is teaching children that fighting is how to solve conflict. Is that what you want them to learn? If you need to have a heated discussion – do it AWAY from your children so you are absolutely sure they cannot hear you.

3. Spread Kindness
You cannot under-estimate the impact of being kind to others. You have no idea how a simple smile to a complete stranger can change their entire day. Parents and teachers need to talk to their kids about this and do it daily. Children should witness random acts of kindness by their teachers and parents towards others – when they see you doing it consistently, it becomes the norm and a value that will become intrinsic to their way of life.

4. Teach Children How To Communicate Challenges & Feelings
With everyone glued to their devices, there seems to be less communication happening amongst children and adults alike. We tend to hide behind our phones and social media platforms and avoid the more challenging face-to-face talks. Parents and teachers need to make talking about feelings and challenging life situations a regular part of a child’s routine. It is also important to ensure children are never made to feel that they are wrong for expressing their thoughts and feelings. You want your kids to come to you about anything that is bothering them, so ensure you maintain open communication channels that are supportive and understanding.

5. Help Children To Develop Positive Relationships
Many young people experience loneliness or lack a sense of true belonging to a positive peer group. This can be very damaging to their sense of self-worth and can be the cause of all kinds of unwanted behaviours. Ensure you are aware of your child’s friendships so you know how their relationships are developing and who they are spending time with. At school it is vital that teachers help children make friends and that team-building, inclusion and anti-bullying programming is done on a regular basis.

6. Children Need To Feel Right & Have Success
The reality is that most children probably experience more negative things in their lives than positive. If you are a parent or teacher I encourage you to count the number of times you have negative versus positive interactions with the children in your care. Being yelled out or scolded for making a mistake is a major hit to a child’s self-esteem and worth. We need to find what our kids are doing right and tell them about it. This boosts their confidence level, which greatly impacts their ability to overcome obstacles and challenges. It also increases their level of happiness. Our role as adults is to sincerely set kids up for success. Create ways for them to successfully overcome challenges and acknowledge them for it. The more you do this, the more confident and happy your child will become.

I encourage you to think about the 6 points I outlined above and honestly look at the consistency with which you as a parent, teacher, aunt, uncle, and grandparent do these things on a regular basis. What if all adults ensured that kids received a 10% increase in these 6 areas? What would the result be? What if it was increased by 50%? How would that change their social and emotional development?

I really have to wonder how many kids out there are like a ticking time bomb just waiting to blow because they severely lack the 6 points I’ve outline in this post. What if all the next potential school shooter needed was some extra support and attention so that he developed positive relationships and had more successes than failures.

What if it really was that simple? What if just 10% more attention could change a child’s life (and an entire city’s) forever? Just something to think about…

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Lisa Phillips is the author of the book, The Artistic Edge: 7 Skills Children Need To Succeed In An Increasingly Right Brain World. She worked with children and youth for 20 years directing programming in the arts, leadership and youth development.