Respect or Obedience

Are you striving to teach respect – or obedience?

In the classroom, respect and obedience can look quite similar. A quiet, well-organized group of students going about their assigned work are very respectful. Or are they just obedient?

We don’t do enough to tease apart these two concepts. Respect is built on mutual trust, and basic human respect is deserved in virtually every situation.

Obedience is built on hierarchical authority – we obey those who have power.

I fear that many educators, and many parents, conflate these two; when they call for respect from the youths in their care, what they are really asking for is obedience.

Of course, in matters of safety, some obedience is required – particularly with younger children who cannot accurately assess risk.

But in most cases, if an authority can really cultivate a sense of mutual respect among the group, blind obedience is seldom necessary.

But if we can’t even tell them apart in the classroom, why is it important to distinguish them?

Because blindly obedient young people seldom turn into world-changing adults. By cultivating that obedience, we are diminishing their future.

On the other hand, respectful young people turn into respectful adults – the kind who can disagree with others but still respect them and have a civil conversation. Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia couldn’t have disagreed more in many of their legal interpretations, but when they served together on the Supreme Court, their mutual respect led them to be close friends even as they forcefully disagreed – such good friends that they attended the opera together many times.

Ask yourself: am I teaching respect or obedience? Because the answer can profoundly affect the long-term future of your students. And your children.