Teach me how to treat you

Teach me how to treat you September 17, 2014

kidsI have four children, ages 6-14. Two boys and two girls. I absolutely love being a dad, a development in life that caught me completely by surprise, seeing as I had no desire to have kids, and the first baby I ever held was my son Huw the day he was born.

But being a dad also has its down sides. Namely, conflict in the home. Whether they’re arguing about who should sit where in the van, who gets the biggest piece (or the last piece), who gets to use the Xbox first and so on, it seems like an argument is always ready to be had.

So a big part of my role as parent is to be a referee or a judge. Find out the circumstances of the conflict, discern motive and intent, assess damages and then declare a verdict (and, if necessary, impose a sentence). Seeing as we don’t use physical force on our children (which would be so easy and feel so good sometimes), we are left with non-violent conflict resolution tactics, such as mediation, time-outs, groundings, fines, apologies and so on. Our kids, on the other hand, accept no such limitations.

I should revise that–some of my children have yet to forego violence as a viable means to resolve conflict. Particularly my six-year-old daughter Lark. She thinks nothing of scratching or punching her brother if she thinks the situation calls for it, often leading to a response in kind, although I have to commend my ten-year-old Zeph on his growing powers of restraint.

One of the key lessons we keep coming back to in such moments is the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Or, in the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This is really the bedrock axiom of our parenting philosophy, something we attempt to employ in the way we treat our children, not just the way we demand they treat each other (and us).

The way I often express this principle to my children is that when we treat other people a certain way, we are essentially teaching them how we’d like to be treated. So if someone snatches something away from someone else, hits them, butts in line, etc., it basically functions as a tacit legitimization of such tactics. After all, if she thinks it’s okay to treat me that way, perhaps she won’t mind if I do the same to her. I’ll say it again: How we treat other people teaches them how we’d like to be treated.

If we extrapolate this lesson into the world of adults, governments, and other institutions, the implications become clear. When ISIS, for example, beheads hostages in a cinematic manner, they think they are demonstrating some sort of superior morality, but they are actually legitimizing the use of deadly force against them. They are teaching us how they think the world should be run. By the same token, when we use deadly force against our enemies–though in a more technologically sophisticated manner–we are essentially drilling home the same lesson. In this way, we’re not much different than ISIS. We both think it’s okay to kill other people in order to achieve our goals. We just target a different group of people and tell slightly different stories to justify our actions.

This is why violence can never work as a problem-solving mechanism in the long term. It’s self-defeating. The more it succeeds, and the more shock and awe it creates in the process, the more powerful the lesson learned. Rather than acquiesce to our obviously superior morality, our enemies look to our tactics as a model instead. So that’s what it takes to succeed in this world. Next time we’ll come better prepared.

imagesBy way of example, I think of the closing scene of Avatar when the aliens are escorting the human soldiers off Pandora. Supposedly, the Na’vi represent a higher form of consciousness, particularly in terms of their relationship to the environment. But in the end, they don’t defeat the humans by changing the rules of the game and enlightening them with this higher form of morality. They simply defeat them with overwhelming force, the same means that was brought against them. Hence the look on the soldiers’ faces as they march back to their spaceships. It’s not an expression of guilt or shame or even wonder; merely resentment and a determination. Lesson learned. When we return–and we will return–we’ll come better prepared.

In terms of the movie, this makes a sequel inevitable. When this happens in real life, the same is true, which is why we’re about to go back into Iraq for a third time. (And in a case of life imitating art, this war comes complete with a teaser trailer.) The question is, what lessons are we teaching our enemies in the process? What sort of conflict-resolution methods are we modelling? Are we truly introducing a higher morality, or are we merely demonstrating the benefits of superior firepower? If the latter, how can we possibly expect our enemies to ever come around to our way of looking at the world, seeing as our actions have essentially legitimized the very means and methods they have already employed?

I’ll say it one more time: How we treat other people teaches them how we’d like to be treated. How would you like to be treated? Don’t tell me, show me.

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