On a recent visit to a pre-school I watched as two children tore into each other over whose drawing was "stupider." One of the adults in the classroom told them not to fight, to which the children responded in unison "we aren't" and continued to attack each other verbally. As these youngsters grow older they will hone their conversational skills; they will learn to be quick to respond to a perceived "dis" with an even better one.

From early childhood many children learn to use language as a weapon. They learn to verbally "cut each other up" and to use words to protect themselves in a hostile environment. They will learn to speak their mind to whomever, child or adult, peer or superior. And we adults have come to accept less than polite language with a shrug and a sigh, as a sign of the times. I could not help wondering when and how this kind of talk became normative and acceptable.

We adults have come to accept less than polite language with a shrug and a sigh, as a sign of the times

It has been said that the Jewish community mimics developments in society at large. One of the less admirable developments of our modern era, it appears, has been the gradual decline of refined language and civil behavior. The very idea of refined language seems somewhat quaint. We speak our minds unambiguously; our choice of words not always sensitive to our intended audience. We don't feel the need to mince words or to hide behind a less than honest façade when we present our feelings and ideas. Some take pride in what is known in New York as "in your face" talking.

On television, family life is portrayed, for our entertainment, as a series of coarse exchanges. The characters spar with those they care for most, with little regard to one another's feelings; friends and elders alike, it doesn't matter. It would appear that polite and civil conversation is non existent. The very idea that they need to address elders or superiors with some deference would bring a smile to many faces. As long as it is not insulting, any form of language is acceptable; in fact it is even seen as more honest and more productive.

The disintegration of this aspect of civil society has been a gradual and evolutionary process. The disingenuous interpersonal relationships and language which were the hallmark of Victorian society have long been discredited. We have learned to address one another in familiar terms, to speak our mind and to use more common and simpler language. Somehow along way we lost some of the intergenerational deference and respect traditionally accorded our elders and superiors. It would appear that the Jewish community reflects many of these same ills, in spite of the fact that the inspiration and guidance for our society is rooted in Torah and Jewish Tradition.

In the Torah narrative describing the behavior of Yaacov and Eisav, we are taught that the two were distinguishable because of Yaakov's refined speech. Throughout the Torah we are admonished frequently about how to address our superiors and what is acceptable in conversation. Many volumes of Halacha discuss nothing else but what is permissible in Jewish conversation; the underlying theme is the refinement of our speech and sensitivity toward others. It seems incongruous that our religious society should accept anything less. Yet, we have come to accept some things as the ills of society at large, over which we have no control and have no alternative but to begrudgingly accept. Do we really need to accept the lack of such a basic Jewish tenet as respect for elders?

What can we do to change attitudes about acceptable speech?

No, I don't think we are going to turn back the clock to Victorian times, but we can turn the tide with regard to basic derech eretz and civility in our children's speech. The fact that the Torah admonishes us so many times to respect our parents and elders, is enough reason for us to make every effort to make it an educational priority. The fact that there are more than thirty positive and negative admonitions in the Torah which relate to speech should demand that it be part of every school's curriculum. It seems rather obvious that, perhaps without our having noticed it, we have all lowered our standards with regard to what we allow as acceptable. Home and school are equally culpable, but we need to start somewhere and to my mind schools must take the lead. Clearly, neither home nor school alone will be able to affect a fundamental change in attitude. It would seem reasonable believe though, that if and when both home and school share the same agenda, and work cooperatively, attitudes and behaviors can begin to shift.

We can realistically expect to teach our children to be careful about what leaves their mouth, if the same standards will apply at home and in school.

Research on social behavior attitudes as well as that of developmental psychology would seem to suggest a few essential truths.

First, we will be able to change attitudes only when we take small incremental steps to change behaviors. Too many efforts to achieve important things die on the vine because too much is undertaken at once. So, we need to be prudent and approach this issue systematically but with small individual steps.

Second, when standards of acceptable behavior are established and consistently reinforced, behaviors will begin to change. We need to come to an agreement about what we find acceptable and only then can we consistently work to enforce those standards.

Third, to successfully change children's normative behavior requires that the child's whole environment contribute. This is not to say that one can not enforce a set of behaviors at school which are different from what is accepted at home; it is done every day. Many things, which the familiar surroundings of the home permit, are not allowed in school. But, that does not fundamentally change the behaviors of a child; he just learns to adjust to the environment. We need to effect a fundamental change and that will not happen unless the undesirable behavior or speech pattern is fundamentally altered, not just in one venue or another.

We can realistically expect to teach our children to be careful about what leaves their mouth, if the same standards will apply at home and in school. When they learn that the same pattern of speech is expected throughout their environment, at home, at school, in camp or on the playground we will effectively change the way they speak, period.

So where do we start? A suggestion:

So let's start with some basics; let's learn to greet one another properly. I will admit that I am biased; I find it hard to accept that our children (and young adults) can find a no more appropriate way to say hello than "HEY WOSSUP?" Really now, whom are they imitating? I recently listened inconspicuously, as a class of twelve year old boys made morning small talk; each one was trying to out smart-mouth the other with the best put down they could muster. I somehow find it hard to accept that this is satisfactory, normative banter. I think that we can teach the reinstitution of the simple social good morning, and a lot more refined, small talk. I find it even more incongruous when, in an attempt to be "cool", adults talk the same way their children do.

The Talmud (in the tractate Nedarim 8a) speaks in spiritual terms about the effect of greeting people; specifically with greeting of "shalom", even those we do not personally know. It was not so long ago that we nodded in greeting to people with whom we were even only vaguely familiar and on Shabbos everyone was entitled to a "good Shabbos". I remember as a youngster, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe OMB would walk from his home to 770 on Shabbos he greeted every one whom he passed, adult or child, with "Gutt Shabbos". For whatever reason, things have evolved to the point where unless we meet a close family member or a really good friend, we don't bother to exchange greetings. Somehow, this is much more of an issue in major cities especially in New York, than it is out west or in the south, (or, interestingly enough, in Israel). To me it seems totally unreasonable to pass an acquaintance and to begrudge him a smile and a good morning.

I once had a sign in my office that read something like this, "a smile costs nothing but it achieves things nothing else can". A morning greeting and a smile can lift the spirits of a friend or neighbor of a teacher a parent and yes, a child. The idea that it is a good and necessary social skill, to exchange greetings and pleasantries is one that has fallen by the wayside for some reason, but it is not difficult to resurrect.

Please don't misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that there are not many people for whom this social habit is not the norm, I am suggesting that it is not as wide-spread or as commonplace as it should be. I believe that if were to practice this basic "refinement" ourselves and expect it from our children, we would start a process which could help create a greater awareness of how what we express with our mouths can have a profound effect.

I would like to suggest that both at home and in school we make sure that the first social words out of the mouths of our children in morning should be a morning greeting. Perhaps we can even squeeze a smile out, to help make it a good morning, as well. We need to train our children, and frankly ourselves, to offer an appropriate greeting, morning, afternoon or evening. A simple nod will do for an acquaintance.

If parents were to start greeting their children, and melamdim and teachers their talmidim and students, we could create an atmosphere which would foster a start to a more civil speech standard. Our children should be expected to greet each other with a simple good morning, and forget about "WOSSUP?"

So how do we make this work?

There are normally a number of simple steps that need to be taken to implement change. After we decide what the desired behavior is and we need to teach and inform everyone of what we expect and why.  We need to demonstrate and practice the desired behavior and then reinforce it positively. We also need to decide upon consequences of non compliance. Then we must be consistent and steadfast. Nothing should deter us from both the positive and negative reinforcement.

With that in mind here is what I suggest we aught to do. A simple unit on the Torah outlook of proper greeting and the inherent "ahavas yisroel" it represents, should be taught in all educational institutions and shared with the home for reinforcement.

Every adult and child should be expected to greet family members, friends, and teachers with a proper good morning and a smile.

Every adult and child should be expected to greet family members, friends, and teachers with a proper good morning and a smile. (A sheepish smile will tell a teacher this youngster needs some attention) In return the parent, teacher and friend should be expected to offer some pleasantries or a simple compliment, to start the day.

As quaint as this seems it can have far-reaching consequences. If we are consistent, it will become contagious, everyone wants to hear something pleasant. With time it should become normative and nothing less will be accepted. We need to catch children "being good" and complement them for their greeting. A return complement is best reinforcement; children (and adults for that matter) will relish the pleasantry.

Children should be encouraged to greet one another similarly, and once again we need to catch them "being good". Both parents and teachers, and not incidentally, other adults as well, need to say something nice to a child who has greeted us properly. "Thank you Rivkah, that was a nice greeting" or "you made my day with such a nice good morning". We can create an environment which will foster this first step.

As far as consequences go, let's leave that to the school principals.