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Why are today’s kids so disrespectful?

Angry child

We tolerate children behaving in ways that we would never tolerate in a peer or friend.

One of the first things we teach at our taekwondo school are the tenets of taekwondo, which are virtues to practice and live by. Respect is an important one. Making eye contact, standing respectfully, saying “yes ma’am” and “yes sir,” and bowing on and off the floor are lessons we start teaching on day one.

Older students can be resistant to showing respect, but the younger ones soak it up like a sponge. When an instructor calls them “ma’am” or “sir” and speaks seriously to them, expecting a serious answer, they are delighted to oblige. Treating them with respect predisposes students of all ages to respond in kind.

I couldn’t help but think of this when I read this interview with Dr. Leonard Sax about his new book, The Collapse of Parenting. Asked what the book is really about, he had this to say:

The transfer of authority from parents to kids. I think you should treat kids like grown-ups. I think you should expect them to be mature and to behave, and I think that’s what it means to treat someone like a grown-up, among other things, although the phrase to treat someone like a grown-up is ambiguous.

It’s not about the abdication of authority.

I often think that our society at large is shamefully complicit in the plummeting standards of behavior for kids. We tolerate children behaving in ways that we would never tolerate in a peer, because we don’t want to meddle or interfere in someone else’s parenting. Or, if they’re our own kids, because we don’t want to be authoritarian or we’re affirmation parenting or even because we just don’t know what to do. In all cases, though, it’s the kids who are suffering.

Dr. Sax explained that it’s common for kids as young as 10 to have access to their own cell phones at all hours of the day and night. That’s something that the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly warns against, but parents find it impossible to follow that recommendation. They feel “that they have no authority over their child in many domains.”

Compare that with another official recommendation that Dr. Sax echoes, this one about having a distraction-free family dinner every day. This is a hard one to implement with teenagers who’ve been used to dinners being rushed, hurried affairs with one or both parents distracted by emails or phone calls. Parents find family dinners with no distractions a hard thing to implement when kids are young, often because they (and by they I mean me) have no authority over themselves.

One of the things that we forget is that human beings are imitative creatures. We learn by watching and mimicking the behavior we see around us. Making time to sit down with our children and listen to their stories without glancing at our phones shows them respect, and by showing them respect we provide our children models of behavior. We would treat another adult that way, and it’s the way we expect to be treated. It’s not enough to explain this to our children — we have to demonstrate it in our interactions with them as well as with other adults.

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