Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Respect for authority

That's Noah with his viola master class teacher from SVI. It was important to him that he arrange photo-ops with his various favourite teachers from this summer. He really likes his teachers! As I've mentioned, Noah is often a favourite of teachers when he ends up in a group learning situation. He's diligent, focused, cheerful and hard-working, and his manner is sensitive and humble.

Once in a while someone asks "but if a kid doesn't go to school, how will he learn to listen to authority figures and obey rules?"

There are two types of responses I can give to this. The first response is the defensive one. I pull out photos like this one and explain how my kids get lots of experience in group situations and invariably their teachers love them. I point out that they behave beautifully in classes and have been able to sit quiet as mice through chamber music concerts since they were two. They get experience creating and obeying rules that are meaningful to them and their family, and they experience social rules when they're out and about in the real world, which is plenty. And that's all true, but the more I think about it, it sort of misses the truth about respect.

The second type of response is to critically examine the assumptions behind the question. I think there are some very mistaken assumptions there. The question is really more about obedience than respect. The assumption seems to be that respect is a behaviour which encompasses obedience and "doing what is expected", and that the only reason an adult in a position of authority would be respected is because the child had experience with obedient patterns of behaviour in a wide range of circumstances.

I don't believe respect is a behaviour that is learned through repeated practice. I believe that respect is a moral understanding that springs from empathy. In other words it comes from a a strongly-rooted set of moral values, not repetitive behaviour. And strongly grounded values are of course best learned through consistent caring teaching within the family ... rather than the rather random, capricious examples set in institutional settings. I believe that people who value others' feelings and who have guided experience with viewing the world from others' perspectives will naturally want to behave in a respectful manner. My children listen to their parents because their parents listen to them. My children behave well in classes, concerts, playgroups and meetings because they care about how their behaviour can support or undermine the experience and enjoyment of others. Yeah, okay, and it helps that they're too shy to do anything that would draw attention to themselves.

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