Dear Mr. Dad: With all the talk about #MeToo these days, I want to teach my children about the importance of standing up for themselves and what they believe in. When do you think is the right time to start, and how should I do it?
A: Teaching children to stand up for themselves and what they believe in is very important. But although the two ideas are related, they're also very different and need to be discussed separately.
Let's start with standing up for yourself. Most parents talk to their children about when and where others may touch them. We teach them that it's not okay for anyone (except a doctor) to touch any area of their body that's covered by a swim suit. And we tell them that if someone touches them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable, they should say NO and get away from that person as quickly as possible. Similarly, most of us talk to our kids about standing up for themselves if they're being bullied – how to avoid situations where they may be picked on, how to respond, when and how to ask for help, and so on.
You can start having standing-up-for-yourself conversations with kids as young as three or four, but keep in mind that it's not a one-and-done talk. As the child's ability to understand the difference between right and wrong grows, you'll need to revisit the issue in an age-appropriate way.
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As I mentioned above, teaching children to stand up for what they believe in is very different, and in my view, shouldn't be taught until children are much older. When? Only when they're mature enough to understand that they need to respect the rights of other people to stand up for their own beliefs.
Sadly, far too few adults have reached that level of maturity. To see the results, you don't have to look any further than your nearest college. Despite the fact that the Constitution's First Amendment clearly protects free speech – even if it's unpleasant – speakers and guest lecturers (the majority of whom are expressing conservative views) are routinely shouted down or intimidated by students and faculty who don't agree with those views. A recent study by a UCLA professor found that 62 percent of Democrats and 39 percent of Republicans on campuses believe that that type of behavior is okay.
Oh, and that's just the beginning. In the same study, one in five college students said that it's acceptable to use violence to silence a speaker. Read that again. These students believe that they have the right to stand up for what they believe in – even if it involves hurting others – but that those whose views they disagree with don't enjoy the same right. Unfortunately, that same free-speech-for-me-but-not-for-thee attitude is shared by many non-students as well. In a 2015 Pew Research study, 40 percent of Millennials said that It's okay to limit "offensive" speech. As a father and an American, I find this troubling, to say the least.
The big question is, Who gets to define what's offensive? Facebook and Twitter, for example, routinely shut down anti-Islamic social media accounts, but they rarely take action against accounts that are openly anti-Semitic or call for the destruction of Israel.
While it's important to encourage children to think critically and express their opinions, it's just as important to encourage them to listen attentively and respect other people's opinions – especially the ones they disagree with. If their (or your) response to an opposing view is to try to shut it down or to attack the person expressing it, they (or you) aren't mature enough to express their views and they have no right to expect anyone to listen to them.
(Read Armin Brott's blog at www.DadSoup.com, follow him on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.)