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Lessons for my Children: On the Art of Good Citizenship featured img
Category: Internal Compass

Lessons for my Children: On the Art of Good Citizenship

June 30, 2020

Spring is a season stuffed full: of damp grass and flowers emerging riotously from the earth, of the sussurating sound of bicycle chains and the grate of lawnmowers blistering the air for the first time in a handful of months, of children running from one end of the block to another forgetting in the burn of asphalt against hands and knees that homework is not quite behind them; of rivers running full as once dry creek beds crumble down the bank. Of dinners forgotten or gotten too late, for outside there is a world of color and sound and light teasing breezes, and how could you possibly trade the delicate late evening sky of shadow bruise blues and purplish hues for the bright white light of indoors? Beneath the sky-arched branches of a snowball bush in full bloom we sit and ignore the passing of time; couples stroll down the street walking dogs and children and children with dogs, and suddenly the air is vibrant where just a month before there was the still white wait of patient expectation. 

The last few springs have come quickly, and disappeared in early heat waves, or maybe it has just seemed early, as we have been caught up in the endless round of end of school activities and preparations for the brief respite summer offers from schedules, and school, of early mornings which mean early nights, of bedtimes while the sun still gleams across the  dusky horizon. In the last few years three of my four children have graduated from high school, a cluster of events that I should have been able to see coming, but seemed to surprise me just the same. And to be honest, I wasn’t ready. And with our third,  although I know the path, and it should be a familiar one, it still seemed entirely and breathtakingly new. 

There seemed to be activities every day. Finals. Packets of school work to be finished. Parties. Senior skip days and dances and dinners, like we were racing through the year one calendar item after another. But one event has stood out to me, and that was the civics test they all had to pass before they could get their diplomas. It was one more exam to be gotten out of the way, one more obstacle, and they have all laughingly remarked that without the musical Hamilton, they would have failed, because their language is pop culture and they speak it fluently. But even in their joking admission that they knew next to nothing about the events that they were being tested on unless it had been sung about and acted out, the test became a talking point for our family, an entry into discussion; about history, about government, and about what it means to be a good citizen. And now, with only their younger brother left to graduate, the state of Utah has voted to abolish the civics test as a failed exercise, calling it “outdated, pointless, and potentially detrimental to students.”  

And I find that I regret that administrative change, and the missed opportunities to engage with our children about social responsibility—to talk to them about becoming active and engaged citizens. I understand some of the reasoning (not enough time in the classroom, just another box to check), but I can’t help but wonder what we are doing wrong that a test about civic responsibility is seen as superfluous. So here are the things I want my children to know about being a part of a community and becoming a good citizen. (And to be clear, by citizenship, I don’t mean patriotism or partisanship or political affiliation, but responsibility, belonging, and connection.)  

Find common ground. An author I know used to tell me that his job was not to create a narrative, but to catch stories. To listen to what people had to say, and tell those things to other people in a way that made connections. As a writer myself, I find that the most effective discussions I have with people are when we look not for the things that divide us, but the things that unite us. The stories about our children, our neighborhoods, and the crazy aunt in our families (you know we all have one). It is these uniting influences that allow us to understand one another, to empathize with hardship, and to acknowledge the lived experiences of others. 

Rethink History. I come from a religious background that emphasizes the power of the written word, that encourages everyone to keep their own personal history. But when it comes to the history that we learn in schools, we need to recognize the incomplete picture it paints. I first became aware of this in graduate school when we were studying the world of esteemed writers from throughout history—but only one type of writer. White, male, and economically well off. Now, there is nothing wrong with being white, being male, or being financially well established, but there is such a rich history that is being erased by focusing so narrowly on one type of author, one type of story, and one type of experience. And this is just as true within our neighborhoods and communities. We need to be open to more than one type of story. 

Be Interested. When our kids have started dating (and complaining about how awkward dating is) my husband has offered each of them this piece of advice: “Ask questions. Be interested in them.” This is good advice for everyone. We should all be interested in what is going on around us, in how events affect our communities, in what is happening to our neighbors, our families, and our friends. In this way, being a good citizen looks a lot like being a good human. Interact in the world around you in a way that creates positive and generative conversations, that shows generous and selfless interest in others. 

Be Engaged. I teach Freshman English at a local university, and one of our first assignments every term is to write an opinion editorial. For me, expressing an opinion comes fairly easily, so it is hard for me to relate to students who tell me they have nothing to talk about. “Just write about anything you feel strongly about,” I tell them, only to hear them respond that they don’t really have strong opinions about anything. And yet, I know they do. I see them on social media, talking about things that interest them, that annoy them, that they want to change. So I can only guess that what they really mean is “I don’t know if my opinion matters,” or “I don’t know if you will agree with me.” We are living through a series of upheavals that demand that we engage, that we sit up and take notice and make our voices heard. But somehow, engagement has come to have negative connotations. Fear of being wrong, fear of saying the right thing in the wrong way. And it is a valid fear. The truth is, not everyone is going to agree with you. Not everyone will understand. But we need to engage in thoughtful, nuanced, introspective debate and discussion. 

Be Kind. My mother-in-law was the queen of the thank you note. A few days after any family event, you could expect to check your mail and find a hand written, detail-oriented thank you note for whatever your contribution had been. It was something that always made my day. The fact that she not only noticed, but took the time to write me a note expressing her thoughts was deeply touching. I have not been as good about paying it forward. But I think we could all learn from simple acts of kindness. Notice the good things that people do—and let them know you noticed. Create a community of kindness. 

Build others up. One of my favorite things about motherhood is being able to watch my children as they interact with one another. And no, it is not always rainbows and butterflies. There is plenty of snarky squabbling. But despite that, my children have become each other’s best and most consistent cheerleaders. Hype men, my daughter would say. But one of the side effects of this support of one another is their ability to amplify each other’s voices. If one of them does something the others tell their friends about it, they share on social media, they comment on each other’s feeds, and they magnify the contributions of one another. One of the things that young people tell me keeps them from being involved in politics or in any form of community engagement is the negativity. The way everyone who gets involved seems to be fair game for others to tear down. And they are right. Negative partisanship, or the idea that we are more motivated to defeat what we disagree with than we are to support what we are passionate about, is rampant in politics and on social media. What is driving us is not altruism or positivity, but self-interest and fear—fear of the other, the unknown, the different than.  Imagine if in our communities we looked for ways to build instead of ways to tear down, if we looked for the opportunities to showcase not only our own voices, but the voices of others. 

This spring has been a difficult one. Despite the beauty of the season, it seems like one thing after another has forced our communities into isolation, into fear, into one negative news story after another. But there has also been tremendous courage, and selflessness, and communities reaching out to make sure that they care for every member of their neighborhoods. And to me, this is the best of good citizenship. That we tell not only the bad stories, but the good. Because those stories allow us to understand one another—to look into the face of other human beings and see not only a reflection of ourselves, but to be able to acknowledge their unique, lived experience and to value it just as highly as we value our own. And because my children learn better from pop culture references, one more quote, this time from the movie Meet the Robinsons. “Let us all conduct ourselves in a way we’ll be proud of tomorrow.” 
Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash