Just Who Is Teaching Respect?

I grew up in a (very) large Christian homeschooling family where children were expected to be “respectful.” Or so I thought. Mainly this meant saying “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” and obeying your parents, and now I’m shaking my head at how shallow this is and everything it misses.

A few weeks ago my two youngest brothers, still in elementary school, shamed my mid-twenties next-in-age sister for getting a tattoo. They verbally berated her and heckled here and generally sought to humiliate her. My father was present at the time and witnessed all of this, but did nothing. My sister didn’t know what to do, because these two brothers are just kids and our father was not intervening. But what happened that day shook her up. She came to me wondering how—how—this could happen. What made them think they could treat her like that?

When I first told this story to my husband Sean, he suggested that my sister was appalled at our brothers’ behavior because they were children and she was an adult and we intuitively expect children to be respectful to adults. But that’s not what this was, because their behavior would have been just as wrong if it had been carried out by our adult brothers. This was not an issue of being respectful to your elders. It was an issue of having respect for other human beings.

My parents taught us to be respectful, but they didn’t teach us to treat others with respect. The way my mother talked about prostitutes, women who live with their boyfriends, mothers who have careers and put their children in daycare—it was crystal clear that she had very little respect for any of these individuals. When she talked about gay people her tone was one of disgust. We were not in fact taught to respect others or their choices, different as they might be. Rather, we were taught both implicitly and explicitly not to respect them.

For example, I was taught that women who do not dress modestly are not worthy of respect. Sometimes this was explicit, and other times it was implicit, but I received the message loud and clear. If you wanted to be worthy of respect, you would dress such as to be worthy of respect. Women who dress “immodestly,” by extension, are not worthy of respect. And you know what? These younger brothers have already internalized this lesson. When they see a picture of someone dressed “immodestly,” they respond with disgust—and the same is true when they pass someone dressed “immodestly” on the street.

My 5-year-old daughter Sally has never said “yes ma’am” or “yes sir” in her life, and I don’t penalize her for “back talking.” My parents would say that I am not teaching her to be properly “respectful.” To hell with that. I am teaching Sally to respect people who are different from her and to respect people’s right to make their own choices. I am teaching her to treat those around her with a basic human dignity rather than responding with scorn or disgust to those who make different choices from our own. I am teaching her that everyone is different, and that that’s okay.

My parents will likely go on thinking that their children are respectful and that Sally is disrespectful and headstrong. I wish they could see that they are not, in fact, raising respectful children. I wish they could see that they are instead teaching my siblings to reserve respect only for the deserving few and to approach all others with distain and scorn. I wish they could see the hollowness of their version of respect.

I wish my parents could understand what I am trying to do with Sally, and I wish they could see what they are doing to my remaining younger siblings.

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