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Good example is the best way to start

What can parents do to raise good-hearted, empathetic children in a culture that champions self-absorption and celebrates the put-down?

Someone could glean a fortune selling child-sized blinders and earplugs. Most parents would do almost anything to keep their young people from seeing and hearing the increasingly mean-spirited, crass world about them.

The by-products of a grittier society seem to be grabbing families by their throats and barking in their faces. Road rage stories appear almost daily in newspaper police blotters. "Reality-TV" is now a euphemism for grown-ups behaving badly on camera. Trash-talk has become a staple of today's talk/shock radio. Even the excitement of a competitive ball game can be foiled by fans and players hurling personal, hateful taunts and insults.

So what can parents do to raise good-hearted, empathetic children in a culture that champions self-absorption and celebrates the put-down? First, listen to a prophet's voice:

"We can all be a little kinder, a little more generous, a little more thoughtful of one another," said President Gordon B. Hinckley at the April 1999 general conference. "We can be a little more tolerant and friendly to those not of our faith, going out of our way to show our respect for them. We cannot afford to be arrogant or self-righteous. It is our obligation to reach out in helpfulness, not only to our own but to all others as well."

It's been said Don Quixote's message is deceptively simple: If you want to be a knight, act like a knight. Bringing-up civil sons and daughters follows a Quixote pattern, said Jean M. Larsen, coordinator of early childhood education at BYU. If parents want considerate, civil children they need to first be considerate, civil men and women.

"There is absolutely no substitute for example," Sister Larsen said.

Teaching civility is like teaching children how to change an oil pan, iron a shirt or shoot a free throw. It is a trait that needs to be talked about, taught and demonstrated. Simply telling sons or daughters to treat one another kindly may be too abstract to stick — especially with youngsters. Find specific examples to talk about, Sister Larson said.

Identify civil behavior and boorish actions from the child's own environment. Ask them how they like to be treated, then reinforce a son's or daughter's good-hearted nature.

"Catch your child doing something right instead of just when they do wrong," Sister Larson said.

Ricardo Olivo admits he worries about the world he sends his five children into each morning. While he and his wife, Emperatriz, have limited influence over the world outside their door, the Olivos work to make their home a sanctuary and classroom for civil, good-hearted behavior.

"It is difficult," said Brother Olivo, a member of the Pasadena 3rd Ward of the Houston Texas Spanish Stake. "But we talk a lot and try to be examples."

Family home evening can be an opportune time to talk about the meanness sometimes found in the world — and discuss ways they can make their home different. Brother Olivo makes no claim of family perfection. Like most siblings, his three daughters and two sons sometimes quarrel. But they talk and work each day to do the best they can.

Homes do not have to be the only forum for teaching young people civility. Students at the Academy of The Holy Names, a Catholic school for girls in Albany, N.Y., recently finished a 10-week course on "no put-downs."

Teachers presented lessons each day on eschewing insults and treating one another with respect. Students learned about the hurt caused by put-downs. They discussed well-publicized incidents of incivility during last September's World Series and last fall's U.S. presidential election.

Parents also participated in "no put-down" workshops. Many helped teach the lessons and, in the process, recognized areas for improvement in their own homes.

"They began to realize, as we all did, that they were sometimes using put-downs and not knowing it," said Rosemarie Wagner, a teacher at the academy. "We all had our consciousness raised about what a put-down was."

Ms. Wagner told the Church News her students also learned ways to respond when they were targeted for put-downs and how to prevent answering in kind.

"[The no put-down program] was totally successful, we were thrilled," Ms. Wagner said. "It's made a tremendous difference in the school; we're going to repeat the program every year."

It's impossible to entirely insulate young people from society's occasional jabs. All children will be told at some point that they don't color well, run fast, or look pretty. But parents can be instrumental in helping them endure and climb above the world's meanness.

First, let young people know — by word and example — that home is their sanctuary, suggests Lori Thornbrue, a mother and member of the Glenmore 10th Ward of the Glenmore South Jordan Utah Stake.

Then never let them leave without family prayer.

"That protection helps more than anything," Sister Thornbrue said.


E-mail: jswensen@desnews.com