One day, about two months ago, a new boy joined my son's first grade class. David came from El Salvador and didn't speak a word of English. When I was growing up, his arrival would have provoked immediate trouble - bewilderment expressed as ridicule and intolerance. Not so with these first graders.
From Day 1, following their teacher's lead, my son Noah and his classmates have been as gentle and understanding with this child as humans can be. The day after David arrived, I visited the class and played a tape of a bilingual story that included a vignette from the storyteller's childhood: We heard about how he was nicknamed "Dorito" when he spoke Spanish on his first day at an American school. Later, out on the playground, a third-grader told him he was stupid because Spanish sounded "dumb."
As I listened, I wondered if the story would put ideas in the children's heads. I need not have worried. Both boys and girls looked up at me with puzzled expressions.
"How mean!" shouted one youngster.
"Why would those children be so horrible?" cried another.
The children are delighted every time David learns a new word. Instead of creating a conflict that would have inflicted unnecessary suffering, these children have become constructive participants in David's learning process. And they are learning too.
I am always happy when I hear Noah, steeped in improvisational play, conflict resolution, and creative problem-solving in preschool, come up with a fresh way of preventing or resolving one of life's many possible conflicts. I love to hear him say: "Why don't we try it this way!"
Every time I hear a child pipe up with a creative solution to a conflict, I think, yes, civilization has made some progress, mostly visible albeit in the words and souls of our children. To me, the most tangible signs of the progress, aside from rapid advancements in technology and medicine, are the words: "Why don't we try it this way." I feel joy when I see kids - who have been taught essential social skills by parents and teachers who have taken the time to educate themselves - prevent unnecessary suffering.
When I was growing up in the '60s, my world was very different. At my schools, children regularly wounded each other with words and actions. Adults barely noticed and certainly did not take the time to provide us with an alternative model.
Manners - which in their most intelligent form can incorporate good communication skills - were optional, as were religious values. Neither applied on the playground, where history taught us to compete, not cooperate.
Over the last decade, mainstream values have changed, making it more acceptable for people to learn and practice a healthier variety of basic life skills. This century has seen major breakthroughs in our understanding of ourselves: We not only have more scientific knowledge, studies confirm that skills that foster cooperation can make people happier and communities more harmonious. These skills work, and can help prevent wars, divorces, violent outbursts, and painful childhoods.
Education is the key word - these are skills, not therapies. But today only fortunate children learn these skills, children who, like my son, had enlightened teachers, ones who understand. I see and hear plenty of children, parents, and teachers who don't.
To be precise, every child, parent, and teacher should learn conflict resolution skills - how to talk out a problem, compromise, negotiate, search out creative options, channel anger, avoid violence, empathize, tolerate, understand, and how to listen and be aware of their feelings. This includes those social skills now labeled as emotional intelligence - the ability to identify, understand, use, and regulate emotions in life.
If each child has these skills in their repertoire - alternate models in their heads - they may live more fulfilling personal lives and become more involved citizens. As leaders they may be more flexible and connected to other citizens.
There are already a few fine organizations and some educators teaching these skills, but that's not enough. We need a massive nationwide skills injection that reaches children, parents, and teachers at every venue and age, over and over again.
If we have learned anything from the current culture war it is that America - the world's supreme economic and military power - has much in common with a dysfunctional family. We need to arm all of our children with wisdom appropriate for our times.
Nadine Epstein is a freelance writer, artist, and mother in Washington, D.C.