I recently had the pleasure of visiting the New York Historical Society’s Norman Rockwell exhibit and was deeply moved by his paintings illustrating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. Roosevelt presented the Four Freedoms—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—in his 1941 address to Congress, delivered as war in Europe was escalating, and our involvement seemed imminent. Roosevelt emphasized “everywhere in the world” after each of the Four Freedom statements.
In 1943,illustrator Norman Rockwell was commissioned to commemorate Roosevelt’s speech in four oil paintings.
As we approach the mid-term elections, I thought it important to revisit these ideas of freedom many of us cherish in order to realize ways we can share these values with our children and remind ourselves of the values of our democracy. This is the first of the Four Freedoms that will appear in consecutive issues of Messenger Mountain News.
THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH
Rockwell chose a town hall meeting he witnessed in Vermont for his portrayal of Freedom of Speech. During that meeting, a man stood to express an unpopular opinion. Despite that fact, he was allowed to speak and was not interrupted. The respectful act of listening to another’s point of view, and allowing an individual to speak his/her own thoughts and opinions is a cornerstone of our democracy.
We can teach our children what the freedom of speech means by teaching and encouraging respectful listening. We do not have to agree with everyone’s opinions but we can show the speaker courtesy and respect. This learning begins in our homes and classrooms as we practice active listening. At home, we can listen to each other at family dinners, when we share about our day, talk about problems, or what is happening in our country and our world. We can take turns talking and really pay attention to the speaker, then respond to the topic in a conversational manner. Engaging in conversation and lively debates within the safety of our family is the first step for parents to teach our children to learn what the freedom of speech means.
We can teach our children to present ideas in a coherent way by practicing public speaking in groups such as Toastmasters (toastmasters.org/education/youth-leadership-program), and debate clubs at school, and to present their ideas during class Council and small group discussions. As children practice expressing their ideas in these safe spaces, they learn to formulate their thoughts into concepts that others can understand. We teach our children to present their ideas at home when they request permission and have to convince us to allow an activity. Our children learn negotiating skills with their friends, their siblings, and with us as parents, as they connive to have last-minute play dates or sleepovers with friends. Presenting the rationale behind their ideas can lead to the desired activity.
One of the most important parts of the human experience is connecting to others. When we feel that we are heard, that our ideas are respected and listened to, it opens up dialogue and allows even the most difficult discussions to move forward. This does not mean that we have to agree with everyone’s ideas. It does not mean that all ideas are good, or that they are all plausible. It does mean that by showing respect, it is a lot easier to connect. Maybe through connection, we can gain understanding to others’ frame of reference, to their experience and their feelings. Maybe, through connection, others will feel understood, valued, and respected and perhaps will be open to joining us in active listening and mutual respect.
This, of course, brings up the issue of what many consider negative, controversial ideas and “hate speech.” Not all speech is speech we want to hear or that we agree with. Some people do not have the desire to engage is a respectful discussion; they just want to demand that others believe in their ideas and follow their lead without real agreement or understanding. Other people have a difficult time rationally explaining their ideas so that others can understand. While we can practice active listening and allow others to express themselves, if someone elicits speech that incites violence or that violates the civil rights of others, we do not have to continue to engage. We can respectfully decline to continue the discussion, or simply leave.
As parents and teachers we can do our best to model freedom of speech and act as role models for our children. We can listen to them, value their ideas and suggestions, and encourage them to explain and express their ideas. We can ask for clarification and really seek to understand our children. As they gain confidence, learn to communicate and articulate their ideas, our children grow into tomorrow’s leaders.
To view Illustrator Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms”, visit www.nyhistory.org/exhibitions/rockwell-roosevelt-four-freedoms). Roosevelt’s entire speech can be heard at www.youtube.com/watch?v=AWvLdJPfjvk).