We're teaching children to express their own opinions but is it at the cost of tolerance and listening?

(Photo: Pexels/Miguel Á. Padriñán)

Are you the sort of person who speaks their mind? Do you make your opinion known about things clearly, repeatedly passionately and with ease?

Not all people can.

It can be for many reasons; background, fear of reprisal or causing offence, anxiety to name a few.

I fear hurting people, and that often stops me saying anything on social media. But where I feel really strongly about something I will speak up.

This in large part is due to my upbringing, but I fear that what I experienced will be, in different ways, the experience of many growing up today.

My experience through bullying and emotional abuse at home, school and church taught me that no one wanted to know my opinion. At home it wasn't seen as relevant, at school it wasn't worth listening to and at church it was to be ridiculed. I was often made to feel guilty for having an opinion that went against the crowd. So I stopped giving an opinion, put my head down and concentrated on getting through life in one piece.

When you have spent your life being told that no one wants to know what you think, you start to believe it, and continue to into adulthood. This affected me hugely to the point that even today, people asking me for ideas or an opinion on something can send me into panic mode, and I find myself spending more time on clarifying than answering the question!

When I raised this with friends on Facebook, it seemed I wasn't alone.

The way things now work on social media, I see a similar version of what I went through as a child. Some people wanting free speech will only allow it if it fits with their own opinion. All other opinion is seen as not relevant, not worth listening to and ridiculed.

I'm one of those people that has welcomed the fact that children are now encouraged to debate, to have an opinion. They are shown how to understand emotions and name them – something that is really important. Again, because of my upbringing and the way I was treated in home, school and church, I had to suppress my emotions. This ended up with me still struggling to identify the difference between fear and excitement even in my thirties. I've had to re-learn how to identify and differentiate between emotions. I therefore encourage parents and educators to help children name their feelings.

I totally support our continuation in helping our children in these ways, in spite of what I am about to say and the questions I'm about to ask.

The first generation of those children encouraged to debate, support a cause and campaign about injustice are now in their teens and twenties. They are making us think and pushing us on matters of injustice – and I love that.

But with it there appears to be a toxic side effect: intolerance.

In helping them to name how they are feeling comes another side effect: using that named emotion to bludgeon someone with a different view to them.

In giving these important skills, is it possible we have forgotten to equip with other skills: listening, tolerance and realising we don't always have to win the debate?

Yes, we need to fight the injustice of inequality in the world. There is a lot – that is why there are so many characteristics named in the Equality Act, some of which still remain ignored.

But is it possible that this intolerance of the other opinion and using how we feel as a weapon has alienated a whole new generation from joining the debate?

In the same way that many like me who struggle express an opinion, will this new generation feel they are not allowed an opinion? That there is a different sort of injustice that is now squashing free speech?

Having done courses on how to listen and support in a mediation situation, I was told that saying 'you made me feel...' is unhelpful in creating a level ground for reconciliation. Taking out the accusation and speaking in terms of 'I currently feel' is more helpful.

Let me give you one example:

Just now my husband showed me a video of Peter Hitchens being followed by a chanting mob of students because he wouldn't 'bend the knee' for Black Lives Matter.

In a country where we have free speech, he has every right not to and not to have to justify his stance. He also has a right not to be mobbed for holding an opinion that is not illegal.

There is much in what Hitchens has said in the past that I completely disagree with, but I would defend his right to say those things. People holding a different view and using the right channels to air them has righted many injustices in the past and changed people's minds, which incidentally is what is happening with the BLM movement. We are learning and we are changing our opinions and attempting to stop injustice.

I love the way footballer Marcus Rashford changed minds over free school meals with a carefully worded letter and a campaign that didn't belittle. He told a story – his own. A wonderful example of fighting an injustice.

But the methods being used by some may be having a detrimental effect on our younger generation who are watching, to the point they dare not even ask why.

In changing our history, they cannot see the path we have taken to justice. They are losing the ability to learn from the mistakes of others because we are erasing them – even though some of those flawed characters learnt from their mistakes and moved on to do things better. Instead, our children are learning to keep their head down and that their opinion doesn't matter. Just like me. And just like others who in the past didn't want that to be the case and changed our education system to challenge that particular injustice.

Don't silence our youngest generation with intolerance. Teach them to listen as they fight injustice.

Kay Morgan-Gurr is Chair of Children Matter and Co-Founder of the Additional Needs Alliance, part of the Evangelical Alliance Council. For more, www.kaymorgangurr.com and on Twitter @kaymorgan_gurr

Views and opinions published in Christian Today are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the website.