I was teaching a life skills class at the Juvenile Justice Center a few days ago, I had a group of nine youth and we were talking about respect. For kids in Juvenile Hall, respect is generally a fairly important topic. We were talking about how we react when other people disrespect us, and how this relates to our self-respect. Almost all of the youth said that if they did not react when someone disrespected them, they would be viewed as weak and would not have anyone’s respect. We got into a very interesting discussion, where I asked repeated questions that they thought about and answered. Several times they became frustrated and said “this is hard”, to which I responded, “I know it’s hard, that’s because we’re challenging our assumptions. Challenging our assumptions to see what they’re made of is a very important part of life. Otherwise, we may be living our life according to false assumptions”. As we neared the end of the class, I felt like we had a “breakthrough” moment together, I saw they’re faces light up with realization as they got it. I wanted to share part of our conversation, because I found it really intriguing and it was a revealing moment for me as well.
Me: We’ve talked about different kinds of respect. Do you feel the respect that you get by reacting to someone who disrespects you is positive or negative? Is this respect worth having?
Youth: Yeah, it’s worth having, because people respect you.
Me: Okay, but is that respect positive or negative?
Youth: Well, because it makes you feel better about yourself.
Me: Why does it make you feel better about yourself?
Youth: Because you feel better than the person who disrespected you.
Me: Ah, so you feel better about yourself because you feel better than someone else?
Me: Do you think it’s healthy for us to need to feel better than someone else in order to feel good about ourselves?
Youth: (long pause) No.
Me: Why not?
Youth: I don’t know.
Me: Who is responsible for your self-respect, you or someone else?
Youth: We are.
Me: Okay, so if your self-respect is dependant upon other people, are you responsible for it?
Me: If your self-respect is dependant upon other people, needing to feel better than them, is that true self-respect?
Me: What does true self-respect look like?
Youth: Maybe someone who doesn’t care what other people think of them.
Me: Yeah, someone who is confident enough in who they are that they don’t feel the need to react when someone disrespects them. They don’t feel the need to earn the respect of others by fighting someone who disrespects them because they have enough confidence in themselves.
I got so excited in this conversation because I could see the youth really thinking about this and I could tell it was sinking in. We went on to talk about the importance of respecting ourselves enough to want to improve ourselves, and that sometimes when we feel disrespected, there may actually be some truth to what the person is saying that we can learn from and improve ourselves. At the end of the class several of the youth said, “Man, you’re a genius dude”. When I asked what they meant, they said “We never would have thought of this stuff”. I replied, “Hey, all I did was ask questions, you guys came up with this”. I’ve been going to the Juvenile Justice Center for three weeks now, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. Some of the kids there are hard, they’ve seen and been through a lot in their short lives, but they’re still kids and they have so much potential. Hopefully the conversations we have together will have an impact, I know they’ve impacted me.