The Messages We Send

Last Saturday I went out for a long run.  It’s one of the pleasures of spring time…getting outside in the warm air and enjoying the struggle of covering mile after mile after mile. 

As I ran, I started to notice something very interesting that we most often take little notice of – traffic signs.

As a society we seem to have a fascination with traffic signs.  It is as if we love them or at least feel the need to put them all over the place.  Once I noticed how many there are, I couldn’t help but be amazed.  They are literally everywhere. 

The next day I decided to do an experiment, I determined to try to count all the street signs I encountered on my typical ride home from work. 

Let’s first frame this properly.  I live in New Jersey.  My commute home takes me through parts of just four little towns.  In total, it’s a six mile ride. 

Six miles. It usually takes me less than 15 minutes to make this commute door to door. 

Care to guess how many traffic signs I saw in that time or over that short distance?

Think about it.

Take a wild guess. 

Come on, it’ll be fun.

In total, I counted no fewer than 400 traffic signs.  (Take a moment and let’s say this together slowly, “Four hundred traffic signs”).   Those were just the ones in my sight on the roads that I was able to count as I drove.  This total does not include street signs (Grove St, Anderson Ave, etc.  I only counted traffic signs.)  I am certain there are more.  (I had to, after all, keep my eyes on the road.) A few times, it actually got somewhat dangerous trying to count all the signs and drive safely – there were that many of them!  (I don’t recommend trying this in an intersection.  I am very fortunate to be alive today.)

That’s a lot of signs.  We seem to be told what to do every few feet.  Every time we literally turn around (if we’re allowed to turn around), there is a street sign. 

And we keep adding more.

For example, at one time, it was sufficient to have a stop sign or a traffic light.  People seemed to handle that well.  It seems that no longer is the case.  We now have signs that tell us that signs are coming.  “STOP AHEAD” is an example, but there are plenty of others. 

It used to be that people were smart enough, or aware enough, to know that when road ends or there is intersection, that they should stop.  No longer.  They now need to be warned in advance, “Hey, up ahead you’re going to see a STOP sign.”

Pretty soon we’re going to have signs telling us that a warning sign is approaching.

“STOP AHEAD SIGN AHEAD”

We also seem to have more and more words painted on the streets.  Up until a few years ago, these read from top to bottom as such:

NO

PARKING

ZONE

For some reason, this confused too many people and now the writing on the roads is backwards to seemingly make it more clear:

ZONE

PARKING

NO

Does any of this make any sense?

In addition to be inundated by signs of various shapes, colors, messages, and meanings, what I also noticed is that we are constantly being told what we cannot do.

The traffic signs on our roads are very negative in nature.  They are demanding.  They are not friendly.

Wonder why so many people are cranky in society?  Maybe they are just tired of being scolded every time they drive somewhere.

The following are just a few of the negatively worded signs that I see on my daily drive:

STOP

NO PARKING

NO STOPPING

NO STOPPING OR STANDING

DO NOT ENTER

TOW AWAY ZONE

NO TRESPASSING

NO RIGHT TURN

NO LEFT TURN

NO TURN ON RED

NO U TURN

DO NOT BLOCK DRIVEWAY

DO NOT LITTER

NO DOGS

NO OUTLET

In addition to all of this, we are told that certain areas are “HANDS FREE ZONES,” to “WATCH OUT FOR CHILDREN,” and to “YIELD.”

(The signs always YELL at us in CAPITAL LETTERS.)

We’re constantly reminded of the SPEED LIMIT and told all about SCHOOL ZONES, FIRE ZONES, FALLING ROCK ZONES, ONE WAY streets, DETOURS, and DEAD ENDS.

There are SCHOOL CROSSINGS, PEDESTRIAN CROSSINGS, and DEER CROSSINGS.  One encounters BUS STOPS and RAILROADS. 

We’re told we can EXIT ONLY or ENTRANCE ONLY.  I am amazed that we even know if we’re coming or going. 

Sometimes, maybe in an effort to not use so many negative words, we have symbols with lines drawn through them.  It’s just a different way to say NO!

We now have blinking STOP signs.  We also have signs that flash our speed.  More and more there are blinking lights all over the place.  People will soon be crashing their cars because of the vertigo these flashing warning signs create. 

No wonder people are tired after a drive.  They leave their car after being yelled at constantly by the prolific signs they encounter.  Everywhere the look they see negativity.  Loud negativity. 

BEWARE OF DOG

PRIVATE PROPERTY

PRIVATE DRIVE

HIDDEN DRIVEWAY

SLOW DOWN

GET OFF THE LAWN

It gets to be a lot. 

It is a lot.

And all of this made me think, “What are the messages we give on a daily basis?”  Do we look at children and say “NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO…” like society says to us?

Do children walk in a school and see the adults as human signs spewing negative thoughts, rules, and prohibitions?

The messages we send on the roads are powerful.  The signs I encounter say, very clearly, “Drivers, we have no faith or confidence in any of you.”  Society thinks that without the signs we wouldn’t know when to slow down or stop.  The signs give the message that without them life would just be one giant car pile-up.

We are so fascinated with signs that tell us what we can’t do that we have literally changed the landscape…for the worse.

There is a section of a nearby town called The Ravine.  It is a very pretty spot.  To discourage or eliminate littering there, the local township has posted NO LITTERING signs there, seemingly every few feet.  Did they ever stop to think that the signs they placed are a form of aesthetic litter? 

When there are too many rules, people become immune to them.  When we scold or yell or complain too much, nobody hears us. 

When there are too many signs, people start to ignore them. 

I think this is why we have signs that warn of upcoming signs.  There are so many signs that in order to drive safely and make it home alive, people have to disregard almost all of them.  Our brains have made us, as drivers, immune to the signs.

Again, though, all of this makes me wonder, and think of the messages that we, as educators, give to children.

Are we always telling them to SIT UP and PAY ATTENTION? 

Think about the words that we utter each day:

TAKE OUT YOUR WRITER’S NOTEBOOK. 

PUT YOUR PENCILS DOWN.

GET YOUR CHROMEBOOK.

WALK.

SLOW DOWN.

LISTEN.

Have we become traffic signs?  Do we have so many rules and expectations that kids, for their very existence, start to ignore the words we say just as we ignore the traffic signs?

I don’t have an answer to this.

Kids need rules.  Schools must have expectations.  There must be a standard of behavior that is acceptable. 

But what are the messages we send?

Are the messages we send ones that build children up, or are they ones that make it impossible for them to manage themselves because they are always being told, as we are when we drive, what they can’t do? 

Would drivers figure out how to safely navigate the roads without so many signs?

Would children do better also without constant reminders?

I don’t know if there is ONE WAY to determine the answer.  I do think it is something that we should SLOW DOWN, YIELD, and STOP to think about.

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