No, sir, law and order tactics not best answer to unruly kids

June 22, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- I admit that the words ring awkwardly in my Yankee ears. "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" sound more like the language of a boot camp than a classroom.

But the Louisiana legislature has just come up with a new language curriculum. Last week, they mandated "yes ma'ams" and "no sirs" for schoolchildren talking to school employees.

Led by the governor, the politicians decided that you can legislate respect. Or, maybe just obedience.

The Louisiana linguistics order that will begin in elementary school and graduate to high school, comes at a time when Americans have focused anxious attention on children. There's a kind of generalized crackdown on kids -- for the sake of kids.

In the wake of the Columbine High School shootings, some schools have beefed up gun checks while others are testing hair for drugs. In New Jersey, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman turned around and decided that a teen can't have an abortion without her parents being told. In Massachusetts, the state board of education passed a bill requiring colleges to tell parents if their under 21-year-olds are caught drinking.

Prying moms

Meanwhile, 82 percent of mothers responding to a Redbook survey said it was more important to keep tabs on kids than to respect their privacy. Nearly 42 percent admitted to having read their kids' diaries.

Add to that, a new bill passed by the House Thursday to allow posting of the Ten Commandments in schools. And the recent rant by Rep. Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, on "spoiled children," "law of the jungle" day care centers and schools that "teach the children they are nothing but glorified apes." You can feel the panic rising.

I'm not surprised by all the worrying over kids. They're worth worrying about. The Columbine massacre left parents stunned. A whole school culture was exposed under the tutelage of a principal who didn't know what was going on in the hallways. The bewildered parents of the murderers left the rest of the country wondering whether anyone actually knows what's going on in the mind of a teen-ager.

Now we seem to have decided that the solution to the terror is to vote in an authoritarian regime. So in Louisiana, the politicians have made respect a law. Yes sir.

The problem is that it doesn't work that way. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, whose new book, "Respect," wades thoughtfully into this subject, says: "Most people think of respect as obedience, submission to some higher authority that has more status, knowledge and skills. But respect is not about dutiful compliance to imposed rules from on top.

"Real respect is a much more complex experience of empathy, trust and connection. It grows in relationship and has to be nourished every day."

Ms. Lawrence-Lightfoot grew up as a middle-class Southern African-American using phrases like "yes ma'am" and "yes sir." But such words only mean what they say when they reflect the depth of the relationship, not the fear of detention hall.

Nowadays when this Harvard professor of education asks students who the good teachers are and why, she gets back the same response: "He or she respects us." That doesn't mean the teacher is a pushover or a pal. It says that he or she pays the coin of respect: attention.

Remember Columbine? "In that huge school, too many kids were invisible," she says. "The idea isn't to insist that they say `yes, ma'am' but to create a community in which people feel valued, listened to, worthy."

Government action

The response to panic, the reaction to chaos and the fear of violence is often a retreat to law and order. If we're worried about drugs, get the schools to test. If we can't talk about pregnancy, get the courts on our side. If we don't know what's going on in a teen-ager's head, grab the diary. If we can't have a civil greeting -- make it a law.

But there's a tricky part to raising and teaching children: We have to gradually turn over the reins of authority. We have to renegotiate the relationship of parent and child into two connected, trusting adults. At the end of this long transition teachers want to turn out caring, responsible -- respected -- grown-ups.

There is no short cut in the business of raising the young. Children need more adults in their lives. Not more sirs and madams.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 6/22/99

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