Photo: That isn't Molly in the dress and Mary Janes!
Last Mommy Mumday, I began a three part series on the “Three Rs,” the three principles I believe are essential to having commendable character and which are vital to instill in our kids, and even to make sure we have ourselves. Ourselves: that is key. We must understand and practice these virtues (disciplines) in order to “get” them and then model them for our kids. Last week was on Responsibility.
The second principle is Respect. Two crucial ways to show respect are to listen to another person, and to not label. A person who is heard, listened to, feels valued. A person who can be who they are without being labeled is given dignity and freedom to be themselves, valued for just being because every human deserves to be treated with dignity.
My experience growing up was that children were more of a checkmark in a box, an acquisition, and a direct reflection on the value or validity of the parent. Children were made to behave not because that would cause them to grow up to be good citizens. They were required to “be good” to make a parent look good. (Heaven help you if you embarrassed your parent.) “Oh what well-behaved children you have!” was a coveted commendation for parents, saying that they were worthwhile, that they’d achieved some sort of status that only special, qualified parents got. It didn’t matter that the reason for the lack of mischief was because the fear of a blistering beating kept a kid from stepping out of line or breaking the rules, just as long as a kid made it appear that parents knew what they were doing.
Determined not to use my children as measuring sticks for my value, I wanted to give them an inherit understanding of self worth. Not the kind that would propagate entitlement or narcissism, but something that would let them rest in the security of being valued by giving them a voice. As early as they could understand it, I told my kids that if I made a pronouncement and they really really wanted something different to happen, they could say, “Can we talk about that?” and we would look for alternatives or why it was going to be the way I said. It didn’t mean I would change the plan, but I would listen to them, consider it, explain it, and decide if what they wanted could be integrated. Of course, this sounds all very clean and rational now. But if I was in the middle of a temper tantrum (my own) and couldn’t cope anymore, I could break from my strategy and yell, “Because I said so! I’m the mom! I get to say so!” But at least I went in with a game plan to avoid that.
When I was in high school, the attendance office was having technical issues. They’d gotten some records messed up and had called some homes to see about absences that actually hadn’t happened. When I got home that afternoon, my parents confronted me, yelled at me, and grounded me. I’d never been grounded in my life! I was devastated. I tried to explain but they’d hear none of it. I finally said, “Doesn’t what I have to say matter?” I got a resounding “No!” The truth of it is, I never skipped class. Really. Even on senior skip day, when all my friends were out on the lawn playing, I excused myself and went to class. The guilt was too great. Remember, I had been programmed to conform to the rules. So when the office called my parents to see why I wasn’t in class, it was a mistake. A couple of miserable days after my castigation, the attendance lady who I often visited and enjoyed knowing found me crying at my locker. She asked what had happened and immediately owned the problem, apologized, and got on the phone to explain the mix up. When I got home that day, I got a shrug and a mumbled well I guess you’re not grounded anymore. I loved that attendance lady. She listened to me. She respected me.
Another way to show respect is to not label another person. By putting people in a box, a box we define ourselves based on assumptions, stereotypes, political parties, religious affiliations, others’ expectation, etc., we demean, devalue, and limit them. I so wanted to avoid teaching my kids to label others, or even themselves. I didn’t want any of them to be a part of the “gifted” program at school because what would that say to those not in the program? When one showed a proclivity to academics, I didn’t say “you’re smart,” I said “that comes easily to you, that is an area of strength for you.” Then when academics (as they are defined by public school standards) lacked in another, I could find what did come easily for him or her and emphasize that ability or gift. Gift is a key word. It reminds us that we can’t control our gifts. That’s why they’re called GIFTS. I didn’t make my kids conform to gender specific roles either. My boys enjoyed dressing up and playing with Barbies more than my daughter ever did. I didn’t care. I wasn’t threatened by them choosing non-traditional gender activities. What did it matter? They were who they were with or without my manipulation. I didn’t even use some acceptable categorization for people groups, like race.
One day Charles and I were out grocery shopping when he was three or four. This didn’t happen much. I rarely took kids shopping with me. It was too difficult. Since we only had one car, I went when Jason was home with the kids. So it was a treat when I got to pretend I was a normal mom (Oops—see there? I used a label) with one kid and shop like everyone else did. In the cereal aisle we passed a mixed race (African American and Caucasian) couple and Charlie looked up at me with his big Tweety Bird eyes glowing and pronounced, “Some times a brown person marries a beige person.”
Respect for others (and ourselves if that is lacking) is vital. It doesn’t just come. It must be learned and practiced. And if we don’t have it ourselves, our kids won’t learn it. Watch yourself today (self-examination) and see how well you listen to others to see if you’re in practice. See if you can get by without thinking of individuals in terms of labels. And then, see how you might model this for your kids.
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