Edward Udel: Honesty and the cycle of violence

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DALTON — Lashing out against a society he despised, Alceste, the protagonist of Moliere's farce, "The Misanthrope," used honesty as a blunt weapon. As a result, he felt the scorn of those he wounded with his words. Insensitive truth can cause harm.

But when it comes to analyzing and fully understanding complex societal problems, full blown honesty is essential. Without it, we often address symptoms but ignore causes. We react but we don't prevent.

There is an uptick in violent behavior both nationally and locally. Physical confrontations in some schools are proliferating, prompting one local school superintendent to release a video warning students and parents that violence will not be tolerated. Newspaper articles describe marauding groups with BB guns threatening strangers and young children. At what point do BB guns morph into revolvers? What was once a rare occurrence in Pittsfield, deadly gunfire, now disturbs its streets with frightening frequency.

Violence is learned. We are not born with the desire to kill or maim. Life experiences put some children on destructive paths. A young child absorbed in play is unaware that he is backing toward a steep set of stairs. His father notices the danger and without moving, he unleashes a tirade of profanity directed at the child. This incident and several others I have recently witnessed in a hospital emergency waiting room and supermarket reveal truths that we rarely acknowledge publicly. There are people raising children who are doing them great harm. Repeated exposure to verbal assaults, either as witnesses or targets, teach our children to devalue human relationships.

Young children who are bullied and cursed into compliance eventually attend school where they are sometimes withdrawn and silent, afraid to make any mistakes or belligerent and emotionally explosive, often mirroring the adult behavior that guided their early years. Incivility is on the rise. Insensitive bluster is now equated with refreshing honesty and unbridled expressions of emotion peppered with profanity have been normalized and even admired. Sometimes young children and teens are guided by those who have abandoned kindness and sensitivity, conflating them with their cursed cousin, "political correctness."

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Some schools are adding "behaviorists" to their faculties. All too often, some of the angry children they try to help become destructive teens and young adults. They are victims who eventually victimize others. And let's be clear. We have assigned our schools the task of "re-directing" behavior. Despite those who insist that there are "best practices" that educators can use to quickly turn the trick, my 49 years of experience in the classroom informs me otherwise.

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In raising my children, I was amazed at how often my parent's words spilled out of my mouth. My wife and I guided them by the lessons that we learned from our parents. But there are many child-bearing adults who have had disastrous childhoods, and as a consequence, they have no positive models to emulate.

Desperate for solutions, we assign blame to our public servants. If only teachers would discipline students, or if only the police were deployed differently and adopted practices used in other communities, or if only elected officials would devote more attention to the problem, we could get this under control. Dream on! By my count, the last five mayors of Pittsfield have all been criticized for failing to reduce and or eliminate what admittedly is a growing crime/violence problem. It is both understandable and logical that people fear violence. But we will not see a reduction in violence unless we change the way we raise our children.

How can we break the cycle of violence in our homes and neighborhoods? How do we reduce the appetite for drugs and put an end to violent turf wars? How can we limit our children's exposure to the violence and cruelty prevalent in video games, films and television shows?

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Stubborn, complex problems are not solved by political posturing. A chain of Pittsfield mayors, each with the very best of intentions, could not stop the violence plaguing the city and neither will their successors.

Crime and violence won't disappear until we raise more children with love, patience and kindness and demonstrate how satisfying and fulfilling helping others can be.We begin this reversal with families who make a conscientious effort to purge their conversations of hostility and profanity coupled with an effort to help others. Schools can contribute by formalizing opportunities for community service.

If we get rid of the anger, replace it with kindness and compassion, and we practice that behavior in our homes, we have the opportunity to raise children who will never be tempted to bully or harm another human being.

A longtime educator, Edward Udel is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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