“…speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way…” St. Paul
Speaking up is part of growing up. This came through loud and clear at a recent parent meeting with Dr. Jennifer Cline, a clinical psychologist who has done research on social media and its effects on young people. She researched the influence of mediated communication on college students, and recently shared her results with a chapel full of parents from a number of private schools in our area (see “Benign Technology” on the insert).
As we begin to think about communicating with others, we might first consider that human beings are uniquely equipped to speak, and to speak with self-awareness. As children grow up, they quickly acquire abstract symbols for things they encounter in the world. We call these words. Moreover, they learn to associate sounds (talking) with the words. Reading follows, as children associate written symbols with sound and meaning. This astounding development is clearly visible in the first five years of life. Simply put, this means it’s part of growing up. As students learn more words, they quickly add a moral component, and learn that words can be used for good or bad.
The New Testament connects our ability to speak with growing up. That’s right, St. Paul said that “growing up in every way” is evidenced by our ability to “speak the truth in love.” What might this entail? Here are a few suggestions. First, “speaking” means, well, “speaking.” Of course the ancients didn’t have cell phones or texting (Imagine if St. Paul had!). Nonetheless his exhortation is that being mature involves the ability to speak, which involves a personal interaction. We are supposed to talk to each other. Remarkably, Dr. Cline discovered that social media actually stunt a young person’s development of the ability to communicate in an unmediated, or face-to-face, manner.
Second, we are to speak “truth” (and truthfully). This is remarkably difficult for children to do, and not always because they intend to lie. All of us are tempted to communicate with others in ways that favor ourselves. Grammar and middle school children, for example, will sometimes report to parents alarming things that went on in school on a particular day. They may earnestly believe that they are telling the truth, and would be offended if you suggested otherwise. Wise parents should recognize the perspectival nature of their children, and not be too quick to accept all stories and to react to them. At the same time, they should not be dismissive either. This is the time to talk the facts through with children, helping them to see the perspective of others before declaring final judgment on a particular event. I have found again and again that when students are given the opportunity to speak with one another they can readily resolve differences and see the true intentions of others.
Finally, we are to speak truth “in love.” Speaking truth means that we promote the good name of our neighbors. This is what it means to “love our neighbor.” Students struggle, however, when they say things on Facebook or in a text message that they would never say face to face. It’s easy to tear someone down in a text message when the response is void of immediate, disapproving feedback complete with facial expressions and expressed in body language . When talking face-to-face, speakers learn empathy, the ability to feel what another is feeling.
An expression of hurt is a better teacher for a child than an adult’s chiding voice giving rules about what is or is not acceptable to say. This is especially true as children travel the middle years and learn that the world outside home is not always exactly as they expect. They seek to verify what they have learned at home in new and broadening social interactions. Which of us did not try out some unkind words in the social melee of middle school? Usually, the troubles which ensued corrected us. Our children, however, can try out words and behaviors on social media and remain insulated from the facial expressions of those they hurt. They miss the important lesson that using another person to climb the social ladder hurts that person.
Moreover, as Dr. Cline has documented, social media platforms like Facebook tempt children (and adults) away from truthful communication in another way. Because social media grants users the ability to project highly edited version of themselves, users can project the best version, their ideal selves. Pyschologically, however, we know that young people are deeply aware of the gap between their ideal selves and their real selves. That gap, for some, can lead to unhealthy social consequences.
Education is about growing up into a mature person. Grownups know how to speak person-to-person, they know how to speak truthfully, and they know that speaking well is an index of their progress. Dr Cline encouraged parents to limit their own use of social media and other forms of electronic communication. Setting aside times in family life when electronics are put away, and adults and children are available to converse can help young ones value real interactions and learn to empathize with others. Children can grow to understand the issues Dr. Cline raised, and we parents and teachers can continue to speak the truth to them in love – even about the dangers of the media they enjoy and the power of the words they speak.