This summer, my family went to the Caz Northwest family performing arts camp. We spent a week in a lovely forest compound on the shores of Puget Sound, playing music, painting, acting, writing and dancing. In truth, the fact that we didn’t cook or clean or check our email was worth the price of admission all by itself, but I left with more than a few new guitar licks and a papier-mâché monster. By the end of the week, I’d found some much-needed hope about human nature and its better side.
These past couple of years have not shown our country in a flattering light. Mass shootings and hate crimes are on the rise. Racism is openly endorsed by our leaders. Children are being ripped from their parents’ arms at the border and forced to sleep on concrete floors. And everywhere we look, reasonable debate and discussion have been replaced by suspicion, name-calling and rage.
As a parent, it’s hard not to despair. Even if we do our jobs and raise our children to be thoughtful, generous human beings, what will become of them in a world where civility seems obsolete, and even basic tolerance has disappeared?
That week at camp, the staff and families created a culture that was designed, not by corporations and billionaires, but by artists, musicians and parents. We got the chance to measure ourselves not by our status or our incomes, but by our way in the world. Beauty and kindness were more than embellishments — they were the coin of the realm, the fundamental purpose of our actions and interactions. And because sharing those things increased rather than depleted them, it was a culture of abundance, not scarcity.
When the measure of wealth is creativity, there’s no point in hoarding it. People took creative risks, and applauded each other as much for courage as for virtuosity. A network of trust and support formed between us and embraced everyone, even those who would have had trouble finding it on their own. The transformative power of inclusiveness was palpable and undeniable.
There’s a wonderful writer/thinker/blogger named Seth Godin who says that culture can be boiled down to one simple sentence: “People like us do things like this.” As social animals, we’re driven by that idea far more than we realize. We’d like to think that our actions are the singular expression of our individual values and beliefs, but the truth is that all of us are capable of a range of behaviors, both good and bad.
Decent, ethical Germans once stood by in silence while their friends were hauled away to the gas chambers. Previously peaceful villagers murdered their neighbors with machetes in Rwanda. The open and brazen bigotry that we’re suddenly seeing in America didn’t arrive with an invasion of racists from another planet. As evil was condoned and excused, it grew bold and stepped into the light. It was always there, but it used to be constrained, because people like us didn’t do things like that. That is, until we did.
Yes, it’s important to teach our kids good values, and to build good character, but that isn’t enough. Inevitably, the culture around them will have a huge impact on who they become and how they live their lives. We ignore it at our peril, but we aren’t helpless in the face of it.
We can affect our children’s culture in two ways. First, we can expand their definition of “people like us.” Welcoming diversity into our communities does more than lift up the marginalized and oppressed. The common values that we share across cultures, like compassion, charity and the Golden Rule, inoculate us against the narrowmindedness and selfishness that ferment in the shadows of our darker side.
Secondly, as we pay attention to the people around our children, we can also stay conscious of the “things like this” that they see us do. That starts in our homes and families, but quickly expands to their schools, peers, community, and beyond.
Children develop too slowly to survive on their own — they need the protection of a pack, a tribe. That’s why they’ve evolved to be highly sensitive to the social norms and expectations around them. Infants and toddlers continuously observe how people interact, and have already absorbed attitudes around gender, race and class by the time they hit preschool. They’re hardwired to feel how we feel and copy what we do, because their place in the tribe depends on their ability to abide by its unspoken rules.
Early on, we as parents get to set those rules, but gradually the culture around us exerts greater and greater influence. Once that happens, we have to consciously choose which culture our children are immersed in. Or better yet, we can work to create the culture they deserve. Either way, it’s a daunting task, but it has to be done.
After all, we’re parents. People like us do things like this.
Jeff Lee totally made an awesome papier-mâché monster in Seattle.