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R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to me and to you

By Rebecca Saito

Back in 1966, Aretha Franklin had a big hit song, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Even if you weren't born back then, you probably know it, and maybe, like me, when you hear it, walk around for the rest of the day singing the chorus, "R-E-S-P-E-C-T: find out what it means to me..." The song became a hallmark for the feminist movement in the 1970's and remains relevant today, especially in youth work.

Young people say that respect is vitally important and is something they don't get much of from adults generally, and specifically from teachers, parents, police, and policy-makers.

I would say that a lack of respect seems to be the underlying cause for virtually every societal problem -- youth violence, teen pregnancy, school dropout, discrimination and prejudice against people of various ethnicities, religions and sexual orientation, gangs, bullying, social and civic disengagement and disconnected, and so on.

So why aren't we talking more about the importance of respect in society?
Going as far back as Thomas Jefferson and the constitution, the respect of individual rights is described as a fundamental virtue of the constitution and a moral imperative for democracy. Yet there is relatively little research about how children and youth become respectful. How does it play out between people of different ages, ethnicities, and roles? When and under what circumstances is reciprocal respect expected or required? How can we increase respect among our fellow human beings? Many seem to agree that it is a learned attitude and behavior shaped initially in the home and reinforced by society and media.

So what can one do to instill or increase intentional respectfulness?

Programs and interventions designed to teach respect all seem to believe that respecting others begins with respecting one's self. While one could imagine a young person with low self-worth speaking and behaving respectfully, it seems a good place to start. The ability to view things from another person's perspective -- often called role-taking ability -- seems a prerequisite. It provides a foundation for recognizing that even though others may not have identical perspectives, experiences and beliefs, they have value. Respectful relationships are built upon courteous communication and teamwork skills, patience and trust, and the humility and understanding that comes from admitting mistakes, apologizing, learning from experience and moving forward.

Ultimately, respect or the lack thereof underlies not only negative youth outcomes, but is at the core of all relationships. This is true not only between people who are thought to be somehow different from another (age, race, socio-economic status, rural/urban, sexual orientation, religion) but also among people who don't have any obvious categorical differences, whether in the work place among co-workers, between family members, neighbors, etc.

How does respect play out in your program, in your organization, in how you vote? How is it that such an important human characteristic garners so little research? What have you found useful in teaching and learning about respect?

-- Rebecca Saito, former senior research associate

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  1. Thanks for a great post Beki! As I was reading your post I began thinking about this idea (that you bring up as well) of beginning with respecting one self. I think programs can be environments in which youth practice respecting one self. I also think that there is something about respecting one self, learning about and respecting others that has to be done at the individual level...I'm thinking of us as adults learning to respect ourselves, then work with youth to help them respect themselves. I feel like I'm going in circles...
    My point is that us as adults, we must wrestle with the process of learning to respect ourselves, respect others and share our experience with youth who alongside us can benefit from R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Best!

  2. Josey you're so right. As youth workers--really anyone in the human services--there is in fact great danger in not knowing or respecting ourselves. People who do this work without having a strong sense of self, too often go into it to get our own needs met and too easily lose perspective on our boundaries and roles. And, I think we need to model good boundaries, a strong sense of self and respect for ourselves and others.
    Even when we're talking about working with our colleagues and peers, it's important to know and respect ourselves, and to be able to speak our mind with confidence and clarity.
    Aretha tell us that respect is about "finding out what it means to me." To me, this is the powerful part of her song. In essence, respecting others involves walking in their shoes, trying to see things from their perspective. This is particularly true in our diverse culture. Thanks Josey!

  3. I think that respect starts in the home and for whatever reason the respect of old seems to have been replaced by greed. It is hard to respect when you are climbing over someone to get that which you seek.

  4. I agree Brian: values like respect, as well as the lack thereof, do start in the home. And although I'm not sure greed is a new phenomenon I do think our tendency to think first of what's best for me rather than what's best for the whole does make respect less likely.
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments.