Dignity and respect – Words with profound meaning but they’re also words that young people usually hear when adults are lecturing them or correcting their behavior. So it’s only normal that they can struggle to truly understand or internalize their significance.
We have to get clear about the words we use so in turn, young people are clear.
Here are our definitions at Cultures of Dignity:
Dignity: From the Latin word dignitas, meaning “to be worthy.”
As in: All people have the right to be recognized for their inherent humanity and treated ethically. Dignity is a given. You just have it and no one can take it away.
Respect: From the Latin word respectus, meaning “to look back at.”
As in: showing admiration for someone because of their abilities, qualities or achievements. Respect is earned. You are respected by others for what you have achieved, experienced and how you have handled yourself as you have achieved accomplishments.
The problem is we use respect in two distinctively different ways: Recognizing a power or status difference between people or recognizing the value of a person. When it comes to children, we commonly frame being respectful as being polite, obedient and following the rules. In this context, questioning the rules or challenging the person enforcing the rules is often perceived as defiant, rude, disrespectful and subject to punishment.
The questions then become: Should you respect someone in a position of authority who abuses power? Should you respect someone who doesn’t treat others with dignity? Even if they’re older than you? Even if they have more seniority than you? Even if they have more experience than you? If dignity is a given that can’t be taken away, what does it look like to treat someone you don’t respect with dignity?
That’s the contradiction that’s so hard to put into words. It’s one of the reasons why young people are so often skeptical about what we teach and model about respect. In their minds, they may question “respecting” someone who treats others badly and then demands respect themselves?
They see people using their position as a way to get away with treating people badly.
If we use dignity as our anchor and ground our work in the belief that every person has value, then we can separate people’s abusive actions from their essential humanity. For example, there may be a teacher at your school who belittles students or embarrasses them in front of others. Your students shouldn’t respect the teacher’s behavior but they should absolutely treat that teacher with dignity. It may look like the same thing—treating the person with respect versus treating that person with dignity but in young people’s minds, it is an important distinction. Respect acknowledges the behavior while dignity teaches the importance of civility and humanity.
The same concept can be applied to a peer situation. Students get rightfully frustrated when other kids are mean. They want revenge. They want the right to hate this other kid. If we say, “Yes, you have the right to be incredibly angry. I’m not taking those feelings away from you. But here’s how I want you to think about it: You don’t have to be friends. You don’t have to respect them. You don’t have to like them or what they’re doing. But you do have to treat them with dignity.”