56. Respecting Children

Human beings are supposed to respect each other, regardless of race, creed, gender, etc. Once, at a conference of people devoted to that respect, I got the feeling that respect for children was not part of the deal. People had their children with them, and though speaking with conviction about the rights of people around the world, these parents did not seem ready to bestow these rights upon their own children. They were, in effect, telling their children to sit down, shut up, and learn about respect.
Adults spend a lot of time and energy letting children know who’s boss. I realize that part of this phenomenon is the result of practical considerations – we can’t let children do A, because then they would do B. We have a responsibility to prepare children for all the rights we hope they will later enjoy. But I think this line of thinking is frequently used as an excuse for oppressing children. When children’s best interests conflict with adults’ best interests, we win because we’re bigger, and we tell ourselves children need to learn that they can’t always get their way. That lesson is quickly learned. I’ve never met a child who didn’t know it.
I want children to respect me, as I want adults to respect me. I respect them, as I respect adults. Because I have lived on earth longer than children, I know some things they don’t know yet. That qualifies me to help them learn those things. I probably also know some things they will later prove wrong, or at least not right for them. That qualifies them to question what I teach them. I’ve learned how to admit that I may be wrong, and I try to teach children how to admit that they may be wrong. If these various exchanges cause them to see wisdom in me and respect me, I’m doing a good job. I’ve already learned ways to see their wisdom, but I’ve had more time. And I’m not done discovering children’s wisdom.
Because we adults have so much power, I believe we have a responsibility to be careful how we use it. Sure, we can demand respect. And we can establish dire consequences for those who don’t seem to be giving us as much as we demand. But I think the most that can do is elicit behaviors that resemble respectful behavior. I don’t think it teaches respect. I believe that modelling respect is the only way to teach it; if we want to earn children’s respect, we have to show them what respect looks, sounds, and feels like.

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