Teaching a Child Respect – it’s a two-way street
“When a child hits a child, we call it aggression.
When a child hits an adult, we call it hostility.
When an adult hits an adult, we call it assault.
When an adult hits a child, we call it discipline.”
― Haim G. Ginott
(thanks to Rebekah Griffiths for inspiring this post).
NB: Trigger warning for stories of sexual violence on several of the links in this article.
On the bus the other day I overheard a woman and a young boy (about 13, still only just entering his adolescence) having a massive argument. It appears the child and his young female friend, next to whom the adult woman had sat, had been mucking about and a pen had been thrown which landed on the floor. For the rest of the boy’s bus journey this adult woman was loudly shouting (deliberately, to get the rest of the bus passengers to join in on her admonishments as she specifically stated more than once) at the boy calling him all manner of bad names and loudly proclaiming his utter disrespect. The boy was retaliating. The woman kept loudly stating how he clearly had no respect and disparaged his mother in her comments. The boy was swearing and objecting to her comments
The little girl was sat in floods of tears next to the adult woman. The boy got off the bus after about 15 minutes but the adult woman did not stop going on. I got up and moved the little girl next to me so she could get away from it.
Yes, the boy behaved badly, and the little girl was extremely embarrassed about this. The woman, however, also behaved badly (a fact that was gratifyingly pointed out to her in a calm and eloquent manner by a mother standing by her pram a bit further down the bus). This woman behaved like a bully, and I did not blame the boy for standing up for his friend, although his methods were not the best. Bear in mind, however, that recent scientific research has shown that teenagers are going through many, many changes and the effects of these changes on the brain make immediate thought and reasoned action harder than for adults whose brains have already undergone the horrible changes adolescence forces on (almost) all of us. For those interested in this sort of thing, lots of articles can be found here.
When asked a question, their brains do not leap to answers as those of adults, or the brilliant randomness of responses that smaller children come up with. Their emotions are heightened and more extreme, therefore one must assume their reactions will be. Science knows this, but it appears society, despite all of us having gone through exactly the same changes, does not.
This occurrence got me thinking (as most things do). We have demonised children in our society. The riots in London and elsewhere last year saw comments about our ‘feral children’, ‘lacking respect and discipline’, splashed all over the media. There was little insight publicised or attempted to be understood as to the reasons why that may be. So where do they learn respect from?
Children are not raised in a vacuum which only contains their parents and their school. They see how we act towards them, as a wider society. They know that their futures are bleak, with youth unemployment at its highest level since 1984/85 (Office of National Statistics).
The UK is one of the few countries where smacking a child is still seen as an acceptable form of punishment of a child. I believe the use of violence to punish a child for perceived wrong-doing merely teaches them that violence is an acceptable act. They may even be punished for being violent by being hit, a confused message to send if nothing else.
I have seen an adult tell a child that because one or two children may have behaved badly to an adult, that adult is completely justified in terrifying any other child they may come across (see my blog post entitled The Stalker of the Child). I know of female adolescents who are threatened with sexual violence and male adolescents who are threatened with physical violence if they do not join a gang; this leaves them with no place to be themselves and understandably removes any sense of safety they may have in the place that they live. This is not a unique circumstance. Communities can be terrifying; in the US for example an 11 year old girl was gang-raped, and many members of her community victim-blamed both her and her family for the incident.
Peer pressure is tremendous in adolescence. Schools are tied in what they can do, and investment in youth projects has been slashed across the board. Children and adolescents have no place to go unless their families can afford to pay for them to attend a variety of clubs that are either special interest or, much more rarely, general youth groups. Even these youth groups can be places of pressure and undue influence. The problems children and adolescents face are myriad, and are being faced by a group of people who are still developing their emotional and intellectual skills to be able to deal with the problems they may face.
Respect is earned, yet we expect our children and adolescents to respect adults without any attempt to earn it. We shout, scream and disparage them with no knowledge of them or their backgrounds and expect them not only to sit there and take it but to learn lessons from it. Whenever a problem in society arises which directly affects children and adolescents we find some way to blame them for it. Who is in charge, children and adolescents or adults? Adults, of course. All adults. Even those of us who might just be in their presence for a short period of time.
If we want our children and adolescents to respect us, they will need to feel they have value and that they will be respected in return. I don’t see much of this going on, and I am therefore not surprised when the first reaction of an adolescent to a stranger spending 15 minutes disparaging him and his mother on the bus is to swear, shout and disparage back. Respect given is respect earned. Clearly, the only lesson this boy learned was that he is hated by adults and that he and his family do not deserve respect. He did not handle it in the best way. He was the child, though, she was the adult. It was her responsibility to behave in a way which she would wish the child to emulate. She did not show him any respect, and worse, expressed none for his mother who was not even present. If she did not show any respect why, then, should he give it? And more significantly, how should he learn to show it?