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By Mir Kamin

My name is Mir, and I am a broken record.

At least, if you ask my kids, that’s probably what they’ll tell you. There is no lesson worth teaching that is not also worthy of endless repetition, in our house. “Please,” my daughter will plead at least a couple of times per week, “Could you… maybe just… not make with the many words? Please??”

“Making with the many words” is what I do, in my work and also in my everyday life. It can become overbearing. That’s not my intention, of course, but I know it does. I’m trying to back off, because even the most pertinent lesson gets lost if the delivery evokes rolled eyes and total overload. I know this. I also know that it’s better to demonstrate than pontificate—lead by example rather than by lecture, right?—and that seems reasonable until you have teenagers.

Teenagers are riddles wrapped in mystery and lodged inside an enigma of self-absorption. I say this with love, by the way. It is developmentally appropriate for our teens to be re-prioritizing themselves above everything else as they enter this final stage of separation from their parents. It is also maddening and confusing if you happen to be the fairly functional adult living with said teen(s). On the one hand, you live out what you feel is a pretty decent example of your values 99% of the time and it goes unnoticed, but on the other hand, that one offhand comment you made three weeks ago sticks with them with startling clarity. Teenagers have a way of ignoring what we feel is the Big Stuff and latching on to every time you weren’t your best self or when you lost your temper at the end of a prolonged period of saintlike patience.

(Not that I consider myself saintlike. Let’s be clear: I make a ton of mistakes. I’m not just human, I’ll admit to falling much closer to the “deeply flawed” end of the humanity spectrum than I wish. But I’m a work in progress.)

Right now I find myself struggling to teach my teens a lesson I feel is central to being a happy human being who can function in society. I try to live it, lord knows I “make with the many words” about it on a regular basis, and we’re still just not quite there. The lesson is this:

Respect is as much about you as it is about the person to whom you give it.

Depending on whom you ask—or even when you ask—we love to bandy around two opposing concepts in our society. The first is that respect must be earned; the second is that respect must be given to certain people wholesale, regardless of who they are or what they do. I believe neither of these standard lines is correct. More specifically, I believe both are too simplistic.

Certain levels of respect should be earned. Don’t admire someone who treats other people poorly and grovel at their feet, sure. But a teacher (for example) deserves a certain modicum of respect because of his position, and even if he’s a terrible teacher, it’s still your butt in detention if you choose to treat him disrespectfully. Furthermore, you can disagree with him and even work to change certain aspects of his classroom behavior without being disrespectful. You can make peace with behaving a certain way because you choose a certain baseline of kindness toward others, without sacrificing your values; in fact, that baseline should support your value system regardless of the other person’s behavior. Because you can’t control other people, but you can make mindful choices about how you choose to behave.

Conversely, no one deserves mindless adoration simply because someone says so. Again: there’s a difference between choosing to behave in a respectful manner and handing someone your wholesale trust. Even if someone else is behaving in a way you don’t like, how you choose to treat them is still on you, not them.

I don’t know if it’s the invincibility of the teen years or the emotional need to be right and let others know when they’re displeasing, but the nuances here seem lost on my teens. I’m really struggling with how to make it clearer to them, beyond my oft-repeated reminder that being a jerk to someone doesn’t change them in any way, it just makes you kind of a jerk.

Last week I watched my daughter pick up the phone and proceed to be so rude to the person on the other end that I could feel my face reddening with secondhand embarrassment (and that’s not something that happens to me easily). Trying as hard as I could not to “make with the many words,” I opted, instead, to simply point out that regardless of what crimes she felt had been perpetrated against her by the caller, this was an unacceptable way for a kind and thoughtful person to behave. Being mean would not change anything about the caller, but it did speak volumes about her. I suggested a call back to apologize, and she sighed. Later, she did call back, and I was pleased to hear her explaining that she was upset but that did not excuse her handling of the earlier call, and she was truly sorry for her poor behavior.

It’s a step in the right direction. But it feels like an awfully long road, especially when so many adults still haven’t figured it out. I’m open to suggestions on how to keep the process moving forward.

Published March 25, 2014. Last updated July 15, 2017.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Sing it with me | Woulda Coulda Shoulda

    March 25, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    […] these lessons to my kids feels a bit Sisyphean. Today I’m over at Alpha Mom, talking about what respect really means, and how much it’s not about the other person. It turns out that sometimes other people are jerkfaces, and that doesn’t entitle us to be […]

  • RuthWells

    March 25, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    A few weeks ago I lost a dear friend and mentor who had a perfect maxim for such situations: you do not have to FEEL respect in order to PAY respect. She was very wise, and I miss her.

  • Diane

    March 25, 2014 at 5:02 pm

    “The only person over whom I have complete control is me. The only person whose behavior I can change is me”. I tend to repeat those two phrases to myself much more often than an adult should. I may hate the way someone is acting, or treating me, but that doesn’t give me the right to do the same to them in return, particularly if they are in a position of authority over me. It seems self control, respect and trust all go hand in hand (though how you hold three hands, I’m not sure)

  • My Kids Mom

    March 25, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    I just went to a 2-day conference on autism, and I see so many resemblances to giftedness that I’m finding myself using some tips I learned at home. One of them is to “shut the f*ck up” or as Chickie puts it, don’t “make with the many words” all the time. Go visual. Put a bunch of smiley faces around the house. Or hand her one when you hear her being kind. You could write on it what she did that was kind, but it puts the focus on the kindness, not the rudeness, and is both more subtle and more physically in-her-face at the same time. You could take quotes about kindness and respect and post a new one in your home each week. We had a “heart chart” when our son was 5, but I can see how it could be incorporated again, noting politeness and being rewarded for it.

    Is this too simplistic for her at this age? Sometimes going back to what worked when they were younger is good, sometimes it feels babyish to them….

  • jenny

    March 25, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    Teaching the value of respect when your kids are teenagers is a tough proposition. I plan on starting them as young as possible. I think the teaching kids in the early years will be easier as they can be accepting to parents. In this way you have many years to  “demonstrate” instead of “pontificate.” Then when the teenage years come by they have the right mindset of respect and maybe need occasional reminders instead of full blown lesson.

  • Aska

    March 26, 2014 at 6:34 am

    This might not be quite what the article is about, but I feel that sometimes pushing back is warranted. I’ve tried to be polite and nice to a fault my entire life, and it usually meant people would walk all over me.

    Even with things like walking down the street and people unwilling to move an inch so I can pass. I ended up needing to move away every time, and never having anyone move for me. So I stopped. The moment I feel someone showing even the slightest intention of moving for me, I move as well. If they seem intent on just walking through me, I buff up and walk on through. If they’re not seeing me ’cause they’ve just looked away for some reason, of course I move aside politely. But if someone’s rude to me first, I will stand my ground.

    Is this an approach similar to “an eye for an eye?” I keep asking myself, because that one is terrible.

    Yet in other ways, I always consider my actions through the lens of “is this the kind of person I want to be,” because I know I can’t change the other person, and don’t want to. Letting go of expectations towards other people is a hard but awesome thing. There will always be those we disagree with, our choice is how we act when faced with them. Our choice is not how they will act.

    I think the key word here is self-control, and teens are just learning how to do that, while under the influence of all the hormones that come with being a teen. Self-control isn’t necessarily a lesson that can be imparted by words, but it’s more like a muscle that you have to exercise. They should know that it’s a good one to work on, because it might make all the difference for them later in life.

    • Mir Kamin

      March 26, 2014 at 10:57 am

      I am a firm believer in standing up for oneself; I think this is why this lesson can be particularly hard for teens, because being polite is often seen as synonymous with being a doormat. You can advocate for yourself and/or refuse to tolerate being treated poorly without resorting to poor behavior, yourself.

      You’re right that it’s about self-control. And we’re all works in progress!

      • Aska

        March 27, 2014 at 10:49 am

        True. I think I had the opposite problem of your teenager, and that’s why I felt like writing that. You’re definitely right though, with self-control one can stand up for themselves and be polite at the same time. Which would be the perfect scenario, and we know life is messier than that. 🙂

  • Amy

    March 26, 2014 at 11:01 am

    I tell myself, the high road always has a better view. By behaving your best in a bad situation you are subtly telling the other person that you expect the same. It’s like when someone is being too loud and you whisper so they then do it too. I don’t think it’s so much about respecting others as respecting yourself enough to care about what you think of yourself. I think you have to cringe at the memory of some bad behavior in your teens to grow into adulthood.

  • Cheryl

    March 26, 2014 at 11:06 am

    I still repeat the wise words of my mother and I’m long since an adult. “You don’t have to like them, you just need to be civil”. To me that made more sense than the respect thing. Civility is something I understood as a teenager. Civility is part of respect, and conveyed the parts my mother was trying to teach me. For the record, this was said mostly when dealing with my brothers, which is still an issue 30 years later sometimes.

  • Alison

    March 26, 2014 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post, Mir. I’m a high school teacher and my kids are generally respectful to me. I know that in part that’s because I treat them with respect and listen to their point of view before handing down edicts, but I can also definitely tell which kids have had training at home on how to respectfully address others (even if they don’t agree with them). 

  • Msree

    March 26, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    My kids are younger but I am already facing this issue head on. I constantly ask ‘how would you feel if someone treated you that way?’ and I insist on an honest answer, this seems to make a big difference to their attitude, often their behaviour is about thoughtlessness.
    Also if I say the words ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ one more time my head may explode.

  • kazari

    March 26, 2014 at 9:18 pm

    I tend to use the line “We treat people with respect because of who we are, not who they are”
    a lot.
    And I use that line a lot on line as well, brokering discussions between atheists and believers, for example.
    It tends to work, reminding people that their behaviour says more about them than their target.

    • Mir Kamin

      March 27, 2014 at 9:51 am

      That’s perfect; love it!