Taking the Time to Teach Kids About the Value of Respect

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LONG ago in my school days, I overheard a teenage girl standing up to her peer group - something never easy to do. She was refusing to go out with her friends. On such occasions, this group often mocked and ridiculed alcoholics on the street. She did not want to be a part of that or even be present while it was going on. She noted simply, ''I don't think it's good for them.''

This incident emphasized in my young mind the importance of respect - respect for others as well as respect for values, standards, and ideals. The scornful reaction of her friends made me realize that those who show respect must often face disrespect - that respect was becoming unfashionable, while rudeness and callousness were actually admired.

Perhaps this is why, years later, I was impressed by a letter written to a local newspaper columnist by Virginia Evans, an African-American mother who enrolled in college after her children were grown.

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Ms. Evans suggested that one reason for the growth in youthful destructiveness - from vandalism to teenage killings - was the failure of young people to learn respect for others. She suggested that civic leaders designate one week each year as ''Respect Week,'' a time when adults could talk to teens about the value of respect.

On reading this, I realized something else: that many of the injustices in the world that shocked me most were caused by disrespect - disrespect for people and their rights because of their race, religion, or income, or simply because they were average citizens without power or ''clout.''

I saw that many of the young people Evans was writing about were disrespectful to others because they were seeking respect from their own peer group. Was it possible to persuade them to give others the respect they so desperately wanted for themselves? I decided to use my influence as a journalist to make Evans's idea a reality.

A committee was formed with civic organizations and businesspeople. The Greater Detroit chapter of what was then the National Conference of Christians and Jews used its influence to get the governor of Michigan and the mayor of Detroit to designate the entire month of October as ''Respect Month.''

Fritzi Roth, director of the public relations firm The Packaged Deal, donated her time and skill getting community groups, businesses, local governments, and the media involved.

Teachers, meanwhile, began to ask us for suggestions about ways of teaching respect in their classrooms. Because teachers are so busy, we decided not to suggest adding a lot of extras to the curriculum but rather to explore what was already there.

In literature, teachers can examine the ways characters seek respect. Some, such as Shakespeare's ''Richard the Third'' seek respect through grabbing power. Others, such as Pip in Dickens's ''Great Expectations'' reject themselves, their roots, and those they love to be accepted by others. Love stories often involve respect (and disrespect) between men and women. Works by minorities often touch on using inner strength to deal with the experience of ongoing disrespect.

Civics and social studies deal with safeguards in our legal system to assure respect for different groups. It might be good to explore whether such safeguards sometimes break down and certain average citizens fall through the cracks.

History has been affected by struggles for respect and denials of respect. Much American history involves groups coming to this country seeking human dignity and respect, but all too often denying it to others - African-Americans, native Americans, and immigrant groups.

Jacqueline Campbell, a professor at the John Hopkins School of Nursing, suggested that health classes deal with respect between boys and girls in dating situations. Another suggestion was to teach techniques of mediation and conflict resolution as ways of settling disputes with respect for all concerned. A physical-education teacher said he was trying to emphasize sportsmanship - respect for those who lose or make mistakes.

Anyone interested in more free information can write to Respect Month Committee, P.O. Box 03015, Detroit, MI 48203 (with a self-addressed stamped envelope). Or call (313) 866-1970.

Hopefully we can inspire more young people to stand up for the principle of respect, as the young girl I knew did.

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