Showing Respect Is Important

The ability to show respect is an important life skill. However, do we give our adolescents a double message when we instruct them to respect their elders, their teachers, parents, ministers, and their bosses 'unconditionally'? The imperative to respect your elders implies some people deserve respect simply because they’re older than others or because they have positions of authority. It further implies respect is something we’re entitled to, it doesn't have to be earned and maintained.

Perhaps it would be better if we contented ourselves with simply teaching children how to behave in a polite and respectful manner. We could bypass the imperative to respect your elders. Very young children need only to learn polite behaviors. The concept of respect is more complicated. Most adolescents however, are ready and able to grasp it.

The girl complained to mom about her aging sixth grade teacher's lack of competence. It was a well-known fact among parents and school administrators; this was a "weak" teacher. She was tenured however. There was little hope of improving her performance and her early retirement was unlikely. The girl is hopelessly stuck in this class for at least a few more months.

Simply telling the girl she must respect her teacher could do way more harm than good. First, it would be disrespectful to the girl to deny her valid observations about an incompetent teacher, and her ability to discern between behaviors that do and do not deserve respect. Further, the requirement that she respect someone who does not behave in a respectable manner might confuse her. It might give the impression that her parents are not listening to her and they clearly don’t understand her dilemma. She could conclude her observations, evaluations, and difficulties are not important to her parents. It could even rupture the valuable trust bond between the parents and their daughter.

Agreeing with the girl, on the other hand, that the teacher doesn't deserve respect might encourage the girl to show her disrespect, set her up for futile conflicts with the teacher, and create a situation that would make the girl's learning process even more difficult.

Parents can underestimate their adolescent's ability to grasp a complicated concept. The girl needs more from her parents than an imperative to respect her teacher or their agreement that the teacher’s incompetence is not worthy of respect.

A fourteen-year-old boy taught me a valuable lesson. (This is a true story.) His unemployed father was grossly overweight, unshaved, loud, uncouth, and used gutter language as he guzzled down the first can from his second six pack for the day. The son was quiet, clean and well groomed, studious, polite and sensitive. When I commented privately to the boy about how polite and respectful he was toward his father, stating "I'm really impressed with how much you respect your father," the boy answered, "Oh I don’t respect my father. He demands that I show him respect, but that’s okay. In case I ever meet a man I can truly respect, at least I'll know how to show it."

Simply instructing children to respect their elders clearly doesn't hack it. Helping them to discern between behaviors that deserve respect and those that don’t is essential, but it's not enough. Surviving and thriving in the world requires knowing when and how to show respect.

—M. LaCourt

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