The Culture of Disrespect

Type: Article
Topics: Health & Wellness, School Administrator Magazine

August 01, 2016

My View

I recently visited a high school that serves an affluent neighborhood in a northeastern state. The English teacher was trying to create a more courteous and orderly atmosphere in the classroom. She explained that she would no longer tolerate students interrupting one another or interrupting her.

As she was talking, a boy in the back of the classroom belched loudly, then said, “Oh just SHUT UP.”

“You see, that’s exactly what I’m talking about,” the teacher said. “That was an uncalled-for interruption. That is rude.”

“Oh I’m sorry,” the boy said. “Please shut up.” Other students, girls and boys, giggled.

Can’t Escape It

American kids today are immersed in a culture of disrespect: they disrespect parents, disrespect teachers and disrespect one another. Within the context of that culture, mocking one’s teachers is funny and will earn you points with your peers. Kids learn this culture from network television and even from the Disney Channel, where shows such as “Liv and Maddie,” “Jessie” and “Dog with a Blog” present adults as clueless, out-of-touch, irrelevant and/or absent altogether. Kids learn it from Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Eminem, Akon and Nicki Minaj.

They also learn it from the Internet. They learn it from social media. They teach it to one another. They wear T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as “I’m not shy. I just don’t like you.”

The popular culture in which American kids live today differs markedly from 50 years ago. In that era, the popular culture supported the authority of parents and teachers and taught respect for school and educators, whether it was delivered through “The Andy Griffith Show” in the 1960s or “Family Ties” in the ’80s. Today, the culture of social media, television and motion pictures undermines the authority of teachers and parents.

Kids are not born knowing how to be respectful. They have to be taught. If they are not taught, then they will look to the culture around them, and what they will find there is Justin Bieber giving the finger to his own fans.

Damaging Effects

As recently as the early ’90s, when I was a young doctor, there was a strong alliance between schools and parents. If a child was disciplined at school and the parents were informed of the infraction, the odds were good that the child would face even stiffer punishment at home. Not anymore. Today, when a child is reprimanded at school, even if caught red-handed cheating during a test, the parents often swoop in like attorneys, demanding evidence and mounting a defense.

The results of this culture of disrespect are not good. In my book The Collapse of Parenting, I cite the evidence of longitudinal cohort studies that demonstrate that disrespectful kids are more likely to grow up to be anxious and depressed, three times more likely to be overweight, more inclined to be fragile and less creative compared to respectful children.

It is possible to create an alternative culture of respect, but this change requires strong direction from school leaders. It begins by acknowledging the problem and ensuring all faculty and staff are on board.

In my visits to more than 400 public and nonpublic schools over the past 15 years, I often have asked for permission to speak separately to parents in the evening about recreating the alliance between the school and the home, to rebuild a culture of respect. My parent presentation is never promoted as “How to Create a Culture of Respect” because the parents who most need to attend would never show up. Instead, it’s often titled “Instagram Ate My Daughter and My Son Won’t Stop Playing ‘Grand Theft Auto’: What Parents Need to Know About the Emerging Worlds of Social Media and Video Games.” I mostly focus on how parents can and must govern their children’s use of social media because social media — especially when unsupervised by grownups — often does spread the virus of disrespect.

But the talk for parents always concludes with strategies for teaching the culture of respect within the home. That means no screens at the dinner table. No earbuds in the car. Make eye contact with the person to whom you’re speaking. Acknowledge requests. Say “hello” when you enter a room, “goodbye” when you leave it, “please” and “thank you.” Not easy perhaps, but it’s simple.


Leonard Sax

A practicing physician and psychologist, is the author most recently of The Collapse of Parenting (Basic Books). E-mail: Twitter: @unfragilekids