Respect: Helping families find the lost virtue

If you are of a certain age, you might remember the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s signature line: “I don’t get no respect.” Back then it was funny, mainly because most of us were used to giving respect to our elders and getting respect from our children, so Dangerfield proved to be a silly misfit. But today that line has gone from one man’s stand-up joke to American society’s everyday reality.

Respect, it seems, is on the decline, especially among young people. Sometimes the problem comes out in obvious ways — the teenager who texts throughout a holiday dinner, for example — but more often than not, lack of respect is much more subtle, coming out in ways that have been embraced by a larger culture that is more informal, less concerned with manners, and inclined to defer to the wishes of children.

Case in point, today we are pleasantly surprised when a young person uses the title Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss, or even has the courtesy to look us in the eye and address us at all. Where once that kind of behavior was the norm, today it’s the exception — the sign of a youngster who has clearly been raised right.

Be countercultural

So how do we raise children “right” in terms of respect, and why is respect fast becoming a lost virtue? Experts blame the culture and say we have to be “more deliberate” about teaching respect as part of our family’s moral code, even if society pushes against us.

“There is a sense of comfort and peer-level relationship that happens (between parents and children) and can slip into something that’s less than respectful,” said Sue Muldoon, a therapist and religious educator who, with her husband, Tim, has written “Six Sacred Rules for Families: A Spirituality for the Home” (Ava Maria Press, $14.95). She also pointed out that media is constantly cultivating an acceptable lack of respect.

Singling out both Disney and Nickelodeon, she noted that the model for most shows directed at kids and teens include parents who are either absent for an unusual reason, or they are buffoon-like. Children, on the other hand, are wise beyond their years. These subtle but ever-present projections cause the respect chasm to widen as children become more and more comfortable with the idea that father — and grown-ups in general — doesn’t necessarily know best.

The Muldoons say that in their own family they continually stress to their three children, ages 15, 12, and 10, that what other families do is not the benchmark or model for their own family’s behavior. “We explain that this is what we do in our home, and these are the ways that we treat one another, and we’re always circling back around to an ethic of love,” said Tim Muldoon.

Faith is key

Sue Muldoon said faith is an important part of that foundation, because it “expands the context” of why they do things differently. “It’s one thing to say we have these family values because that’s the way we as parents think it should be done, but when you are rooting it in your practice of faith, you are rooting it in this larger community of the Church, the teachings and other Christians,” she explained. “Hopefully it becomes something they can take on as their own.”

For Amy and Jason Kramer, parents of two children, ages 11 and 8, in upstate New York, faith is critical to their efforts to instill respect for others in their son and daughter.

“The Catholic Church is not only global but historical. Through their participation, and the example of our participation, the kids feel the love of the Church and also understand that they are part of something transcendent — at least that’s my hope,” said Jason Kramer, who stressed that teaching by example is their first line of defense against the influence of the culture.

“We love our parents and adore our grandparents. We do not hide that from the kids. The kids have heard stories of cooking with grandma and fishing with grandpa. They have seen the faded photos of family vacations. We still dutifully visit, call and otherwise include our parents in our lives,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t think it has ever occurred to the kids that there is any other way.”

Jason Kramer also said his children’s Catholic school is imperative to their ability to teach their children respect, as is involvement in outside activities such as Boy Scouts or taekwondo, which add additional layers to the moral code. “All of these things teach that the family is important, that hard work and perseverance are vital, that we must respect authority while also standing on our own,” he explained. “We can challenge, disagree and argue ideas and practices, but there are certain foundational truths. Without Catholic school, our layering would be incomplete.”

The Muldoons agree. “Formation is a virtue. A child really has to be trained in it,” Tim Muldoon said. “I always tend to relate it to the way you train for sports. It doesn’t just come; you have to do it again and again,” he added.

Models of respect

Even if children are enrolled in a Catholic school, there is no escaping the influence of the culture. From peer pressure to advertising to the secularization of society, multiple factors converge to make teaching respect a sometimes-losing battle. Natalie Reittenger and her husband, Gary, who live in Iowa and have three children, ages 10, 8 and 21 months, regularly face the uphill battle teaching their children to be respectful in a world where parents want to be friends not rule-makers.

“I believe strongly in teaching my children the value of respect — for parents and elders but also for peers, siblings and themselves. I try to do that by reminding them often of the importance of it, by trying to model it, by showing good examples in action, such as when we see someone in public helping an elderly person,” Natalie Reittenger said. “We reinforce positive behavior when they do something respectful and dole out consequences when they’re disrespectful.”

Faith is a constant in the Reittenger household, and for Natalie it is the place to turn when she gets discouraged by the challenges of parenting. “When I don’t know what else to do and I’m out of ideas and completely overwhelmed, I pray. And I don’t always know if that’s the right thing to do, or if it’s enough, but a lot of days it’s all I can do.”

Cathy Adamkiewicz and her husband, Aaron, have seven children, ranging from age 28 to 13. Their youngest, Celeste, who would have turned 10 this year, died at 4-months-old. The Adamkiewiczes also have eight grandchildren, so they not only know the challenges of parenting, but they have been able to observe their children teaching these early lessons to the next generation.

“Mostly we try to teach respect as I teach most everything else — by example. Of course, I’ve failed at this frequently, but I’ve tried to keep in my mind that children will imitate what they see me doing,” said Cathy Adamkiewicz, who is the author of “Broken and Blessed: A Life Story” (Bezalel Books, $12.99), based on the life and death of the couple’s infant daughter. She remembered one of her daughters refusing to say “thank you” to the hostess of a dinner they attended. She made her then 7-year-old daughter call the woman later to do so. She’s not sure if that incident had anything to do with it, but today her daughter is a “gracious woman who is extraordinarily respectful.”

“It’s more likely she responded to our general family atmosphere of pleasantness,” she said. “I think this is a virtue that is very much underrated these days. How many families really try to be pleasant to one another? Respect starts with kindness, with trying to authentically like people.”

Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of six books on Catholic spirituality. She writes from New York and blogs at