Sarah Smiley: Have our kids learned meanness from us?

“I’m glad he’s dead.” “Good riddance.” “What a worthless human being; I’m glad he’s gone.”

“I’m glad he’s dead.”

“Good riddance.”

“What a worthless human being; I’m glad he’s gone.”

If you can’t imagine allowing your children to say any of the above about a person who has just died, then I wonder why so many adults — many of them parents — wrote similar sentiments after Chief Justice Antonin Scalia’s death this month.

It was shocking and depressing to venture onto social media on Feb. 13 and see so many hateful comments. Sure, I understand how strongly many people disagreed with Justice Scalia and that some people believe his decisions made the world a less tolerable place. But have we really become a society in which death is the only agreeable outcome for someone who shares a different opinion than ours?

Maybe I felt sensitive because my grandmother, Doris, had just died the week before. Losing Doris reminded me that Justice Scalia, despite his place on the world stage, was a human being. He was someone’s son, brother, husband or grandfather.

If not for Scalia’s position on the Supreme Court, the world might not know his position on abortion. And for sure, there are many more people who aren’t famous who share his beliefs. Do the commenters wish all of them dead, too? Have we forgotten so much about civility that the only way to be happy is to actually be rid of the people who don’t agree with us?

Four years ago, while my husband was serving overseas for a yearlong deployment, my three sons and I filled his empty seat at the dinner table each week with someone from our community. We hosted firemen, policemen, teachers, comedians, artists and musicians, but we also shared meals with politicians from both sides of the aisle.

Of all the 52 dinners we had, including the most poignant one with an Alzheimer’s patient and her husband, what many people wanted to know was, how could we share a table with some of “those people?” By “those people,” they meant politicians who do not share their point of view.

Our answer was simple: We invited “those people,” sat down at a dinner table with them and we shared a meal. The idea that our guests might have different views never crossed my young boys’ minds. They never thought of them as politicians at all. They thought of them as people. In fact, it’s hard to think of a governor, senator, congressman or mayor as anything but human when they ask you to pass the ketchup, or when your 4 year old stands up and moons them. (Yes, that really happened; see

I knew the opinions of each of our political guests, but my boys did not. They met them as humans — someone’s mother, sister, neighbor, grandfather, uncle. Lindell climbed into Sen. Susan Collins’ lap and patted her cheeks. Ford played catch in the backyard with former Maine governor John Baldacci. Owen ran down the hallway of the governor’s mansion as he played hide-and-go-seek with Gov. Paul LePage.

And then, some time later, my boys started to understand what each of these politicians supposedly represents. They heard the negative ads on television and people’s comments in the grocery store. And one day, when someone mentioned our dinner with the governor, saying, “How could you share a table with that man? I hate him,” one of my sons said, “Does that person even know the governor?”

He didn’t mean, “Has that person played in the governor’s mansion?” or “Has that person eaten chicken nuggets in the formal dining room?” What my son meant was, “How can they hate a person they don’t know?”

“It’s politics,” I told him. “They hate his politics.”

“Then why do they say they hate him?”

Through my naive children’s eyes, it was inconceivable that someone could hate — not just dislike, but hate — a person they had never met. In fact, it was upsetting to my youngest son. I’m glad he so far hasn’t been exposed to people celebrating another person’s death.

The reactions to Scalia’s death reminded me of the social media atmosphere after Kim Davis attended the State of the Union Address. People viciously mocked everything from her eyebrows to her outfit — all because they don’t agree with her politically. Would we allow our teenage daughters to mock a classmate’s appearance because they disagree?

Pair all of this with public education’s race to stop bullying, where it is unacceptable to treat people with anything less than respect. While our children are learning that lesson, their parents are at home posting to Facebook about how ugly they think Kim Davis is or that they are glad a Chief Justice is dead.

The anti-bullying movement seems to be based on the premise that children are inherently mean and need to be taught civility. But in recent months, I’m beginning to wonder if the opposite is true. Maybe our children have learned their meanness by watching us.

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