Last week I described a disease that has huge impacts on our communities: short-term thinking. It’s not just our youth who have succumbed, but many adults who should know better. And it’s not just individuals. Sometimes short-term thinking takes over entire industries (Enron, WorldCom). They obviously didn’t think of the possible consequences when they committed accounting fraud. They were only concerned about the next quarterly report. But someone sneezed, and their house of cards collapsed. Same thing happened on Wall Street. When big banks and brokerage houses became “Too Big To Fail,” our economy -- along with the rest of the world’s -- was brought to its knees.
While I can rail against banks, Wall Street and the like, I can’t really do anything about it other than to keep my savings stuffed in a mattress. I can do something about why a young mother couldn’t think through to the consequences of leaving her 2-year-old son at a restaurant. Unfortunately, short-term thinking usually leads to more short-term thinking. Or, put more simply, one mistake leads to another.
We can help stop the cycle of ignorance that leads to short-term thinking, but we have to go old school. I was looking at some old pictures from the civil rights era. The men were dressed in shirts and ties and coats. Many of them wore hats. The women wore dresses. Even the young marchers, many times, wore suits. The manner of dress tells us how important the event was to them. They wore their Sunday best rather than warm-up suits, jeans and emblazoned T-shirts. This was no accident. Even in the 1960s they knew that if you looked like a thug, no matter how noble your mission, people would see you as a thug.
When people demanding their rights at lunch counters were abused by other patrons, they were trained not to respond in kind, even while they were doused with water and syrup and knowing they would spend the night in jail for doing nothing. That’s the kind of discipline we need to instill in our children when they first leave the womb. But like the marchers and demonstrators, they have to be trained.
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That’s a hard task. Society has evolved a new set of rules that say it’s OK to be disrespectful. Young athletes follow the example of their tattooed mentors and think: My hero scored 25 points and defaced his body, so I’m going to do the same. Or my hero just cussed out the referee, so I can cuss out the referee, too. Or my hero made a spectacle of himself after scoring a touchdown. Now it’s my turn to do something inappropriate in front of high school fans.
I say that to say this: Adults, we have to model the behavior we hope to see in our children. They are looking at us for guidance -- not in the words we say, but in the way we do the things we do. Believe me, they know when deeds don’t match the sermon.
OK, Mr. Smarty Pants, you say, where do we start? First, limit your children’s exposure to things they ought not see, whether it’s TV programs, movies, games, etc. Some call the television the “Devil’s Eyeball.” I can’t say they’re wrong. Monitor their use of social media. That means you have to know how it works. Ask your kids; they’ll show you. Let them know you’re looking at their posts.
Check homework even if you don’t understand it. Communicate with teachers on assignments; they will teach you what you need to know. Just the art of checking, even if you sit there and nod your head or ask questions, lets your children know you’re interested. And the easiest step to take is making sure your children get to bed device-free and at a reasonable hour.
Some ancillary steps: Don’t dress like a thug or a hoochie mama. If you do, expect your children to follow your example in having their britches banging the sidewalk or their dresses tighter than the skin of a catfish.
Last bit of advice. Parents, you are your child’s protector. You wouldn’t let them go out in the rain without a raincoat and umbrella. Sometimes we all need protection from a run-amok society that will damage a child’s mind much more than a little water.
It’s never too late to start. Never.
Charles E. Richardson is The Telegraph’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at 478-744-4342 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet @crichard1020.