At almost 50 years of age, you could say that maybe I haven't fully grown up. I'm highly extraverted and laughter is my favorite part of the day. Given where I am in my career, I have learned how to harness my enthusiasm appropriately, but it has been no surprise to me that my two children share these qualities.
My son is about to finish elementary school, and in his classroom and extracurricular activities, the discussion of respect comes up fairly often. My son is a wonderful boy -- kind, sweet, generous, gracious, always smiling and fun. He is still learning how to harness his expanding sense of humor and charismatic personality. I decided as a summer activity we would dive into the concept of respect to prepare him for the transition to middle school. Each day I am proposing different questions in a notebook that he has to reflect upon and answer. This is not a book I purchased. It’s all in my head. We’ll call it “educational off-roading.”
When we think about acting respectfully, what do we think that means? Personally, I picture obedience (and in the case of a classroom, children being quiet), but that isn't what respect means. The first exercise for my son was to look up the definition. No matter where you look, it all comes down to "admiration." Even definitions that don't include "admiration”, the synonyms mean the same thing..."admire." That's a strong term. How does that translate into being obedient, especially to this generation?
When I was growing up, there was a certain amount of awe about teachers, coaches and principals. The same held true of any professional we encountered in any field, as well as the parents of all my friends. If I had to name a quality to describe the entire group, it would be "smart," and, therefore, we needed to hear what they had to say. It was a time when only last names were used by children, never first names. It created a distance that was filled by silence and stillness by most children, and if we didn't follow that rule we could be paddled, or made to stand in a corner. I spent many a day watching two walls meet, and it was humiliating. This taught me an admiration for the power a teacher had, and that it was pretty effective. Paddling and public shaming are no longer considered effective tools, and while I agree with that, it certainly removed some of the power a teacher had to create admiration. Now we expect them to earn admiration by method and not just power, and yet many of the best teaching methods are interactive. My kid loves these, as do I as an adult learner. We feel that it makes us all equal -- teacher and student. But if we are equal, what happens to "admiration"?
There was another reason I felt the adults in my life were smart. For the most part everything I learned came from them, or from a book they either gave me, or drove me to a library to borrow. A few cultural shifts have changed this. With more women in the workforce, children attend camps and afterschool activities now where they participate in hands-on learning activities. There is a booming business in interactive museums on every topic. Today’s young person carries an entire resource library on their phones, and let’s not forget two of their most influential professors, Professor YouTube and Dr. Google. Children no longer wait for the world to be unfolded for them like a tablecloth. They can learn anything they want, anytime they wish.
Today's children grew up at a time when anyone who worked with them before they entered school was called by their first name, "Miss Julie or Mr. Chris." Childhood celebrities were not at arm's length. They saw their favorite characters fairly regularly at Disneyworld or at some traveling show several times a year. Often, they were in the same auditorium with celebrities that as a child I could only have dreamed to see in person. There are opportunities to meet your idols and get their autographs. While they aren't active on social media they are aware of it. Parents share interesting videos they find online, and children see them “like” and comment on the content. Children may believe that the celebrities we follow actually see these things, and perhaps react to them, creating an illusion of interaction and intimacy.
People we used to stand in awe of are now a commodity and we're all on first-name basis. The awe and admiration have somehow been drained away, as well as the resulting behaviors of stillness and contemplation. Multiple times a year regular people become stars on TV and the whole family watches, so becoming a celebrity myself may only be a few steps away, right? I'm as special as everyone else around me, right? Gone is the kind of dreaming that makes you ache; that makes you silent so you can hear, and learn from the master. The goal now is to interact, and yet the rules for behavior haven't changed.
Earlier, I mentioned an assumption that adults were smart when I was a child. Have you watched kids programming lately? Adults are idiots. Seriously. I wouldn't trust them either. There is a powerful combination out there of stupid adults on TV and a culture where we give a ribbon for just showing up that makes every child feel brilliant. They are more tech-savvy than we are, have greater access to information than we did and have more ribbons than a four-star general...I fear they may even think they are smarter than we are.
I gave my son a list of critical influencers in his life and asked what he admired about them. What he returned to me made it clear that he doesn't see these people at a distance. They are like best friends, which may be why he is not quiet around them. Yes, he likes them. Some of them he likes a great deal, but every quality he described is transactional. Every quality centers on how he interacts with them and how they respond favorably. He sees no barriers to becoming just like any of them, and he is too young to appreciate the hard work that went into them becoming who they are today.
This issue will eventually touch all of us. While some children are wired to be reserved for a host of reasons, we have a generation of people who will be our colleagues, our bosses, our doctors, our clergy, our sons and daughters-in-law, and they will enter into a relationship with us expecting less social "personal space." They will not stand in awe very often, and it will take a lot to earn that from them. They will ask much of us because of this closeness, and they won't just take our word for things. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, though it is exhausting. We will have to explain ourselves more. It seems there is a critical shift about to occur regarding patience. Rather than expecting the younger person to be patient, this cultural shift now requires the older person to be patient, or at the very least, we have to be patient in equal measure. This is the second reason I'm doing this journal with him, because I need to better understand this myself as I enter the next twenty years or so of my career. I will need to reset my expectations, be patient, and earn any admiration I'm given.