January 11, 2011

Your Kids Don’t Respect Authority? Here’s Why

You hear it all the time: “Those kids have no respect for authority!”

And, while I’ve known a multitude of young people whose attitudes and behavior belie that description, it is – sadly – a true statement in far too many cases.

If we wonder why, we need look no further than ourselves – the adults in these kids’ lives.

I’ve only recently begun to dig into history – to analyze rather than merely memorize – but it doesn’t take much to realize that many of our recent problems in this area likely stem from a seismic shift in our society’s view of authority beginning in the 1960s. At that time, “authority” of any kind (even benevolent authority such as that which had always been wielded by good parents and teachers) became a dirty word, and the Baby Boomers, who came of age in the ‘60s and ‘70s, prided themselves on defying it. They refused to live under any authority themselves and abdicated their responsibilities for being the “accepted source[s] of expert information or advice” in the lives of their children (Second College Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary, 1982). Then they passed on those attitudes to their kids – those of us born between about 1964 and 1982 – who often soaked in as if by osmosis the notion that all authority is “bad.” Now we – the “Generation X” cohort – are currently the “in-charge, adult generation”…and are trying to raise and educate our children without exercising authority over them.

But it just doesn’t work.

Of course, whole books could be – and probably have been – written on this subject. The bottom line, though, in terms of why today’s kids don’t respect authority, is that we haven’t taken up the mantle of it, even though that’s our responsibility.

Picture it this way: If you confine your child to a tiny fenced backyard for her entire life, that’s abusive dominance – illegitimate authority. Conversely, if you never provide any fence at all, you put her at risk of great harm – perhaps to the point of death – and that’s equally abusive. The proper stance is to supply a sturdy fence, but one that provides enough room for exploration, and then to train and guide about when and how it’s safe to leave the yard.

“Benevolent authority” is like that third fence. It offers behavioral boundaries that kids need and, in fact, crave. That gives them security and, in turn, a healthy respect for reasonable rules. But for too long we’ve bought into the myth that all fences are bad. And the result is kids who are increasingly belligerent and destructive – not because they’re “bad,” but because they feel at sea, having been raised with no boundaries at all.

Thus, to the extent that we struggle with “disrespectful” kids, our first response ought to be serious self-examination and a willingness to add some fences – hard work to be sure but worth it in the end.

Photo Credit: PrayerSpaces 


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