How can our society regain respect?

“I don’t get no respect!”
-Rodney Dangerfield

He was a little guy, munching on the taco lunch that his mother had brought into my office for him, his younger sister and herself. I was a little miffed, I won’t lie, that the family knew they had an appointment with me right after lunch, but they decided to make the appointment itself lunch. I tried to concentrate on my interview questions and assessment, shredded lettuce and ground beef flying onto the floor as I did so. I could overlook the need to vacuum my office after the visit.

What I could not overlook, at least not easily, was the outright, in-my-face, vitriolic and vocal disrespect that was shown to me by my pint-sized patient. After trying to engage him for several minutes, only to have the conversation default to mother, who was trying her best to ignore his outrageous behavior, I got this answer from him as I tried to ask one more softball question.

“What I need from you right now is for you to stop talking!”

Really? That’s what I get from a latency age patient after being in the profession for thirty years? Really?

It struck me as I thought about this scenario later in the day and for several days after this that we are, as a culture, rapidly losing any sense of what appropriate displays of respect are. It happens in my office. It happens when I am seeing folks in emergency rooms around the state. It happens in homes across the country, as children disrespect their parents. It happens in schools, as kids think that bringing weapons to school in outright defiance of rules or talking back to teachers and principals is acceptable behavior.

It happens when citizens do not respect police officers or EMS workers. It happens to the office of the president of the United States. Now, I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that I should respect the office of the presidency no matter who held it, for he could be removed for wrong doing or could be voted out after his term if he had not done a good job, but the office would remain. Nowadays, it appears that we have lost our way and no longer prescribe to this idea either.

What has happened? What is happening?

Why do we no longer respect ourselves, our institutions such as schools, churches, marriage, and others?

It seems to me that several things are adrift here, with mooring lines long since cut and nothing to hold us safely in the harbor.

Respect is not being modeled in the home.

Respect is not being taught in the schools.

Respect is not being demanded as a prerequisite to moving forward in life.

Respect is not being earned, whether at the local level or at the highest levels of government and industry.

I would challenge each of us to think hard about this.

How do we get back to teaching respect from the very beginning in the home, then have this lesson continued in the schools, and then modeled further in the workplace and beyond?

A single session when a troubled child is scattering lettuce on my floor and telling me to shut up is one thing. Training kicks in to deal with these minor frustrations.

Losing respect for each other, our government, our religious institutions, our governing documents, our social norms, and our mutually accepted ways of moving together through society is much more serious, and may have far reaching effects if we don’t act now to turn things around.

Greg Smith is a psychiatrist who blogs at gregsmithmd.

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