I recall the days when having a fistfight didn’t mean your life had to end. In the neighborhood where I grew up, an occasional fight wasn’t uncommon. Sometimes it started because of bantering while playing a sport. These skirmishes often taught us that we could disagree but still remain friends. It was, in some sense, progress. Those moments didn’t result in anyone going to the hospital or becoming lifelong enemies.

The abolitionist Frederick Douglass once said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” He was referring to the hard work, sacrifice and dedication it would take to ensure freedom for African Americans. He was declaring that the road to freedom would be hard but traveling it would be well worth it. Moving our nation from a place that embraced slavery to one that embodied the virtues of freedom, democracy and equality was progress that made us all better.

Unfortunately, the philosophy of struggle seems to have lost its luster. In our politics, we have become so polarized that we are unwilling to put in the necessary work to find common ground. It may be easier to hit the lottery than to get bipartisan legislation passed. Fortunately, the House and the Senate recognize, at least to some degree, the deleterious impact the gridlock is having on our democracy. They are both working on improving their legislative effectiveness. The House-based Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress has issued recommendations for better ways of operating while the Senate is seriously considering filibuster reform.

Just like Congress, it’s time for us, the adults, to rethink how we are communicating and treating each other. When we disagree, it’s not only understandable, but it also should be expected. After all, we have different points of view. Through constructive discourse, we can improve our understanding of each other. Having a disagreement should not make us enemies. How we act and behave during this process is what sets the stage for mutual respect and understanding.

Unfortunately, far too many of us have forgotten the Golden Rule. We see growing evidence of adults misbehaving in public. Such as on airplanes. It’s to the point that flight attendants are now taking self-defense classes to protect themselves from poorly behaved passengers. This year, the Federal Aviation Administration reports conducting more than 1,000 investigations into reports of unruly passengers.

We also see it on the roads: Motorists cutting off others in traffic, driving closely to force others to go faster or using profane gestures. They are all demonstrations of adults setting the wrong example. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a large number of collisions can be attributed to road rage and aggressive driving. Rage also drives homicides.

Is it any wonder that violence and maladaptive behavior have become normalized for our youths? They are watching what we say and do. Now, a fistfight between youths in the neighborhood can lead to bloodshed in the streets or worse.

We read about altercations in schools that lead to retaliatory actions in the streets. This overarching mindset and our culture of intolerance are affecting the hearts and minds of far too many of our youths. They may believe that any form of disagreement means that the other person is their combatant. Common ground isn’t sought when each person is villainized. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of teens have experienced some kind of violence in their lives.

It’s our responsibility as adults to change this perspective and provide a more civil environment. Attitude reflects leadership, as the saying goes. So are we providing the right leadership and examples? If we were to ask our children whether we are good role models, what would their responses be?

I have fond memories of the days when political leaders from both parties would sit across the table and debate the issues without resorting to name-calling. And following debate, they would shake hands and have thoughtful words to say about each other. I also relish the time when disagreements between youths did not lead to mob action and bloodshed.

Stemming the culture of violence starts with us. It’s in how we treat our relatives, our neighbors, our cashiers at the local store, our delivery drivers and our restaurant workers.

Our children are watching and taking their cues from us.

Let’s start the new year being better examples for the future generation. Our youths want us to do better. We cannot continue to let them down and then ask that they do better.

Jerald McNair is an administrator at School District 151 in South Holland, Ill.