Monday, March 11, 2019

Respect Starts With Me

Last week, I posted about how I want the children I teach to question my authority. I want them to grow up knowing that it is not just their right, but their responsibility as citizens in a self-governing society to question those entrusted with power, to doubt them when they say or do things that don't match what we already know to be true, and to challenge them when necessary.

The post was shared fairly widely on Facebook and elsewhere and as I perused the various comment threads, there were some readers who agreed, but with the caveat that they expected such questioning of authority to be done respectfully. And I agree, I suppose, if what they mean is that all humans are due respect. We should all strive to treat one another with basic human dignity, courtesy, and kindness. I agree in the sense that it's a two-way street. Indeed, in any interaction between adult and child, the onus of showing respect is more fully upon the adult, the more experienced human, than on the child who presumedly is still learning.

But I find myself bridling at the word "respect," because it is too often used as a stand-in for traits like "obedience" or actions like "compliance." There is the implication that those with authority, be they parents, teachers, or elected representatives, are somehow owed deference simply by virtue of their position of power which, from where I sit, could not be further from the truth. Respect in this sense is not something anyone is due: it must be earned and we do that by treating the other humans with basic human dignity, courtesy, and kindness ourselves while simultaneously demonstrating by our words and actions that we are worthy of respect. "Respect" that is coerced or secured through threat is not respect at all, but obedience, which is a fundamentally anti-democratic concept. I earn respect when I demonstrate that I know that whatever power I have, even as a teacher or parent, is granted only by the consent of the "governed."

As a citizen, I strive to be courteous and kind to everyone, even when I'm challenging them, and I expect others to strive to be courteous and kind to me, not in a transactional sense, but simply as an aspect of living in a society. To the degree that we sometimes fail is the degree to which we are human. As a teacher or parent, however, I bear a heavier burden when it comes to respect because I am the one with authority and in a democratic society the proper use of power is to be of service to others. Respect starts with me.

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