Q: I recently read an article that said adults need to earn the respect of children. That seems like one more “progressive” attempt to undermine parental authority. I believe children should respect adults no matter what. Don’t you agree?
A: Sorry, but I do not agree with your conclusion. The fact that a person occupies a position of authority does not mean he or she exercises that authority in a manner that deserves respect. For example, the fact that the law requires me to submit to certain designated authorities does not mean that I am obligated to give them my respect. Note that obedience and respect are not synonymous. There are people who despise the police, the sheriff, and the highway patrol but who nevertheless obey them because of the serious negative consequences of disobeying. They don’t want to pay a heavy fine or go to jail!
I do by and large respect our law enforcement authorities, but I obey them because I believe in the rule of law, however imperfect it may be. I also obey because, in the final analysis, I’m a lot more content than if I were to disobey. (Disobedient people, regardless of age, are never content.) I am not obliged, however, to respect the individuals who make the law. They earn my respect by acting responsibly, ethically, and selflessly.
Likewise, I think it is in the overall best interest of children that they obey adults who occupy positions of legitimate authority, especially parents and teachers. Children who disobey are not happy campers. But even a child can understand, intuitively, when an adult in a position of leadership is not behaving in a fashion that deserves respect. An adult earns the respect of children by discharging the responsibilities of his or her “office” in a way that causes children to want to obey. In that situation, obedience is a natural response to effective leadership, and this is true regardless of whether the people being led are adults or children.
The question therefore becomes, What does effective leadership look like? For one thing, effective leaders command rather than demand. People in leadership positions who are demanding do not know how to command. Effective leaders are relaxed, not uptight. They are open to changing their minds, albeit they have to take care not to appear to be wishy-washy. They are not defensive. They communicate clearly and concisely, which is essential in order to project a sense of decisiveness. Effective leaders let people make mistakes and learn from them. Above all, they focus on helping the people they lead to become better at what they’re doing. As a consequence, working for a good leader is intrinsically rewarding.
Parenting and teaching are both leadership activities. Unfortunately, today’s parents and teachers are all too likely to be operating as if their primary goals are to establish wonderful relationships with their children and students. While relationships are important, leaders must guard against letting the desire for good relationships undermine their leadership. The attempt on the part of a person in a leadership position to establish a wonderful relationship reflects insecurity, which opens the door to disrespect. Besides, by putting leadership first, a good relationship follows naturally.
Sorry to disagree with someone who feels so passionately, but I believe in obligations and responsibilities, not entitlements.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.