Respecting Kids

Why should we adults respect kids? Let’s face it. They’re clueless, right?

They’re born unable to move or feed themselves, and fifteen (or more!) years later, we still can’t trust them to drive a car responsibly.

So should they have our respect? I mean, real respect, not just patronizing “Oh, you’re so great for playing on my team! Here’s a trophy!” respect.

Yep. You betcha.

Why? I’ll give you two reasons.First, to say they’re “clueless” is to look at them through a very adult-centric lens. As Allison Gopnik demonstrates so eloquently in The Philosophical Baby, babies’ brains are actually superior to those of adults in some important ways such as creativity and problem solving. Also, children are way happier than adults. One study showed that children laugh roughly ten times more than adults do, on average.

Second, even if we adults believe that they’re clueless, we shouldn’t accept that as an unchangeable fact and protect them from their own cluelessness. We should help them get more of a clue every day. In other words, we should give them constant opportunities to get more of a clue and earn our respect. After all, we’re not going to live forever.

Unfortunately, we’ve been doing a horrific job at giving them a clue. Even if one defines “a clue” to be what today’s parents care most about by far, academic achievement, we’re failing. Pretty much every standardized test shows a downward trend over the past few decades. Beyond tests, numerous university professors (e.g. the author of The Dumbest Generation) contend that the quality of student work has diminished noticeably in their careers.

Outside of academic achievement, though, children are doing even worse. Their rate of depression and suicide is increasing rapidly. Meanwhile, they’re having a difficult time taking on the responsibilities of adulthood when they reach their twenties, which has traditionally been thought of as the first decade of adulthood. Many books and magazine articles have recently been published documenting this. In fact, there’s a movement in psychology to define a new life stage between adolescence and adulthood called “emerging adulthood.” Oh brother…

So, how can we help children get more of a clue? The key, I believe, is that we should give them opportunities to earn our respect constantly, from the beginning of their lives. Every time they earn new respect from us, we should ratchet up, giving them more responsibility to work things out on their own.

Respect – real, authentic respect for real competence – is something that all human beings seek. Many researchers consider earning respect to be fundamental to true fulfillment in life.

How do we give them opportunities to earn our respect? We should take their present passions seriously if they can find a way to pursue them. If they can’t identify their own passions, we should give them enough space to find them for themselves. We should give them room to fail, and to learn from failure. We should give them space to figure many things out for themselves, and we should accept their solutions if we find them reasonable, even if they differ from the ones we came up with.

Twenty-somethings aren’t going to emerge as responsible, thoughtful, passionate adults one day after being controlled by their parents and other adults for two decades. Their ability to think for themselves must be nurtured and encouraged throughout their childhoods.

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5 Responses to Respecting Kids

  1. RobertH says:

    Respect is an interesting, and confusing, topic. And not just respect for kids.

    For starters, it seems that different people have different ideas of what respect means.

    Your take, and that of some researchers, seems to be that respect must be earned. It’s not something that people, including children, always receive, depending on their actions.

    My own take is that respect, certainly respect for our own children, is not something that must be earned. I respect my kids no matter what they do. They may fail to impress me, even disappoint me or worse, but I would still respect them for who they are. In that sense, my respect appears to be divorced from their actions.

    However, my sense is that our disagreement may be purely semantic. I am fairly certain that at least you, Mike, in some sense also respect your kids no matter what they do. If so, we are just using the word “respect” to describe different concepts.

    And I wonder whether this semantic ambiguity may not be at the heart of the whole problem, i.e. the (perceived?) lack of respect for children. Maybe, children receive more respect than we and/or they think. Or they receive less respect than we and/or they think. Or maybe, the very concept of respect is an illusion and has no definite meaning.

    I have similar difficulties, for example, with the concepts of love, happiness and pride. They mean a million different things to a million different people.


  2. Mike Lanza says:

    @RobertH –

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Yes, we do have different interpretations of the word “respect.” To me, true respect is only earned. defines it as follows:

    “esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability”

    If we focus on the phrase “a sense of the worth or excellence of a person,” I’d say you focus on the “worth of a person,” while I focus on the “excellence of a person.” All persons have “worth,” but not all have “excellence.”

    I would say that I can respect people who aren’t “excellent” for their drive or determination or spirit. I guess these would fall under respecting someone for a personal quality, a quality I happen to admire.

    However, if my kid were untalented and unmotivated (I’ve seen more than one twenty-something like this, going through “emerging adulthood”), I wouldn’t respect him. I’d always love him, though…

    – Mike

  3. RobertH says:

    I thought so, Mike. Now, I understand better where you are coming from.

    Before I tell you where and how I differ, let me say that I don’t find the dictionary definition of respect particularly helpful. If anything, it shows that the matter really is as confusing as I said it is, and that different people use the term in different ways.

    The problem is that, like yourself, most people, myself included, think that there is something like “true respect” and that we know what it is, even if we can’t quite articulate it. This has the potential for creating conflict between people with different perspectives on the matter. Imagine, for example, that your own definition of respect differed from that of your (adult) children, a very possible scenario. I, for one, am fairly certain that my own definition of respect differs from that of my parents.

    Hence I think it’s extremely important to reach a semantic consensus on what respect (and other normative terms) mean. If everyone uses their personal favorite flavor, the discussion (not just this one, but generally) will go nowhere.

    So, here is why I think my own take of respect, specifically as it applies to one’s own children, is superior:

    Let me start with your own conclusion: On your view, a child, especially an older child or young adult, who is untalented or unmotivated doesn’t deserve our respect. This makes respect entirely contingent on the success of a person to demonstrate talent and motivation.

    But as you well know, every person has some valuable talent or other and is motivated to pursue one valuable goal or another. Unfortunately, circumstances are often such that people don’t get to pursue their talents and goals. A child may not show much academic talent or motivation in school, but might have been a successful artist, had he or she been allowed to develop that talent.

    And even if provided with the appropriate opportunities, there are many reasons why childen may not (fully) demonstrate – or be motivated to demonstrate – their true talents. Often, I suspect, the very expectation of parents that their children “excel” is the reason why their children choose not to excel. They rebel against what they perceive as constraints of the older generation. That’s just a natural part of growing up and dissociating from one’s parents.

    To withhold respect from a person, especially a child, because of their failure to demonstrate “excellence” in one way or another seems to me to perpetuate exactly the problem that I thought you were trying to address in your article: That children don’t receive the respect they so much need. If your view were correct, little respect will continue to be forthcoming from parents, as many will – understandably – believe that their children haven’t earned it. This lack of respect will not only further demotivate children by labeling them “unworthy failures”, but will also cause them to subscribe to the same negative view of human nature, perpetuating the cycle of disrespect.

    I call it a negative view because it assumes that without demonstrated excellence of some kind, human beings are unworthy. For if they were worthy per se, they would be respected for it. But they are not, at least not “truly.”

    I wonder whether your – what I would describe as a traditional – view of respect is perhaps underwritten by your implicit acceptance of some form of behaviorism. Do you believe that by giving respect we reward children to show talent, motivation and excellence thereby making them more likely to continue “doing well,” and that by withholding respect we punish them and thereby make them more likely to start doing so?

    In any event, my own view respect is not contingent on any demonstrated excellence. Every person has my full and true respect, no matter what their motivations, talents or actions. Specifically as far as my own children are concerned, I believe that they not only deserve my utmost respect, but that my respect is also instrumental in allowing them to be the best they can be. Not because I would withhold respect if they aren’t, but because unconditional respect lays a psychological foundation for risk taking, pushing the envelope, going out on a limb, thinking outside the box, etc., the kinds of attitudes that tend to lead to success and happiness in the long run. My kids don’t have to be afraid they will disappoint me, only themselves. This provides them with a very safe starting point, a base they can always return to for sustenance. And, hopefully, they will show the same respect to others, foremost their own children.

  4. Mike Lanza says:

    @RobertH – I’ll make two points:

    1) You speak about respect as though it is a decision in the eyes of the beholder. I don’t believe that one decides to respect someone else any more than one decides to think someone is beautiful. Sometimes, one acts with respect toward someone when he, deep-down, doesn’t respect that person.

    2) To think of everyone as worthy of respect is to render the term meaningless. Is everyone beautiful? Smart? Funny? Of course not. Language has no meaning when it doesn’t differentiate between things or situations. When I was a young child I rejected the concept of Heaven on exactly these grounds.

  5. RobertH says:

    Interesting points, Mike. To respond:

    1) The issue, I thought, is not so much on whether we actually respect children, but whether we ought to do so, i.e., whether we have a moral or other reason to do so. A person may “deep-down” feel disrespect, but that doesn’t automatically justify that feeling. Our feelings, though real and rooted in our human nature, often misguide us. Examples are anger, love, hatred, or envy, to name just a few. In other words, respect seems to have not only an emotional, but also – and in particular, a cognitive dimension. Being respect can, and perhaps must, be learned.

    2) To say that universal respect renders the term respect meaningless seems to beg the question. For you assume that respect is not universal, but rather differentiated. But that is precisely the question we are arguing over – whether all children or just some of them deserve respect.

    If this logic seems perplexing, just think of love: I take it you agree that all children deserve to be loved by their parents unconditionally and don’t have to earn their love. If so, you believe that unconditional love does not differentiate between different children or circumstances. Does this mean unconditional love is meaningless? Of course not.