Two weeks ago, I was standing in line waiting to pay for an item at a local department store. In front of me was a mom with her teenage daughter. They were purchasing a new dress that the daughter would wear to an upcoming Sweet 16 party. The mom asked whether the daughter wanted to buy white shoes to go with the white dress. Before the words were out of her mouth, the daughter rolled her eyes, sighed loudly, and snapped, “What the hell is wrong with you, Mom? I can’t wear white shoes with that dress. That’s so dumb.” The mom shrugged her shoulders and continued with the purchase.
I stood there in utter disbelief. My first thought was that if that were me, I would have left the dress there and told the kid she didn’t need a new dress because she wouldn’t be going to the party anyway. That attitude certainly didn’t deserve a new dress or a night out. I was also simultaneously angry at and sad for the mom. She clearly didn’t think there was anything wrong with having her daughter treat her so disrespectfully. In fact, she seemed pretty used to it.
All the way home, I was thinking about the scene. I didn’t want to judge the mom, because we’ve all been in situations – especially in public – where we just have to swallow our anger and annoyance to temporarily keep the peace, especially with little ones. But this circumstance struck me as different. The daughter was not a child, she was practically an adult, and I couldn’t help but think that the mom was teaching the daughter to disrespect herself by not standing up for her own self when the daughter yelled at her.
By allowing other people – including our own children – to treat us with disrespect, aren’t we really showing them that we don’t respect ourselves?
And if we don’t have self-respect, how can we expect others to respect us? It’s a vicious cycle. We have to love ourselves first, and that means not allowing other people to speak to us in an angry, disrespectful manner.
And it also means that we have to teach our children to both respect themselves and others around them. By instructing our kids to respect their parents, as well as their teachers, other children, authority figures, animals, and family members – even their personal belongings and the earth around us – we are inevitably teaching them to have respect for themselves.
Such self-worth is an invaluable tool that kids will need to use as they grow into young adults. Valuing their bodies and their minds may eventually help them avoid things that could harm them physically or emotionally. I’ve discovered that part of teaching kids to value themselves is to show them that other people and things have worth, too, and that how they treat those people and objects demonstrates a recognition of that value. Over time, that, in turn, can grow into self worth and dignity.
My parents were quite adept at teaching my sister and me to respect ourselves and others. I remember one weekend, when I was around 17 years old, I was going on a date. The boy was picking me up, and he made the fatal mistake of honking his horn to let me know he arrived. I knew, instinctively, that there was no way my father was letting me out of the house. Eventually, the boy came to the door – and my dad told him I wasn’t permitted to go out with someone who didn’t respect me enough to get out of the car and greet my parents.
I was mortified at the time, but that lesson stuck with me through the remainder of my teenage years, and beyond that.
My dad taught me I was worth more, and his respect for me helped improve my own self worth.
I try to instill those same lessons in my own children, by teaching them to respect themselves by respecting others: to say please and thank you; to speak to me and their dad in an appropriate tone; to help others by holding a door open or just simply giving them a smile; to listen to their teachers and not speak critically of others. And to expect others to treat them with dignity.
Make no mistake; it’s hard. They’re kids, and inevitably they are going to be disrespectful to me or others.
But I keep on them, every chance I get, hopeful that one day my daughter won’t speak to me or anyone else the way that girl spoke to her mom in the department store. Because in the end, teaching our kids self-worth starts with embracing our own value, including not allowing ourselves to be disrespected by our own children. Maybe I’m naïve, but I truly believe that the world would be a nicer place if we all respected ourselves – and each other – just a little bit more.
Rosemarie Coppola-Baldwin is a practicing attorney and a dedicated mother of two children. A Georgetown University graduate, Rosemarie has practiced law at a major New York City law firm and for the City of New York. Rosemarie has been a guest lecturer on women’s civil rights and related legal issues at St. John’s University (New York), and offers pro bono legal services to a variety of entities.