Teaching Kids Respect for Authority AND for Themselves: The Balancing Act

My first experience with Spring Valley High School was a scary one. I was a scrawny seventh grader who had barely made it onto the varsity track team (which was basically a come one come all type situation) and we were headed to Columbia to compete against Spring Valley's track team. Although I went to a suburban high school, our co-ed bus full of seventh graders to high school seniors was pretty rowdy and spirited.  Until the bus slowed and we all saw the sprawling campus with what looked like hundreds of track athletes in impeccable track suits, stretching with the uniformity of a Marine Corps. The bus grew quiet - almost respectful -  and as we took our beating that year, Spring Valley became imprinted on my mind as the gold standard to work towards. By my senior year, our women's track team had eked out one win against Spring Valley through some kind of Remember the Titans like underdog strength, but I will never forget the fear they inspired at our first encounter.

Fast forward to Oct 26, 2015 and it seems Spring Valley High is still inspiring several emotions in folks, one of which is certainly fear. The video of a student's altercation with a Safety Resource Officer at Spring Valley High emerged and in a cycle that is becoming all too common when a white police officer has a physical altercation with a person of color, the debates ensue. I think most reasonable folks across the Don Lemon to Rev. Sharpton continuum can agree that the force used is difficult to watch, justifiable or not.

Nevertheless, they are several people, particularly teachers who have pointed out that this whole situation could have been avoided if the student had followed her teacher's instructions from the beginning and/or had acquiesced to authority's requests:

Allow me to digress for a moment; I promise I will make my way back to Spring Valley. There is an ongoing dinner party question I often ask folks: Will you teach your child that they have to hug every adult that asks? From their great aunt three times removed to your boss who thinks she is "adoooooooorrruuubbbllleee"? Most people balk at the idea that you would allow a child to tell their grandmother "No thank you" when she reaches in for a well-intentioned smooch. But I understand the counterargument; children should not feel an obligation to allow any adult to touch them, it could get slippery. 

So let's extend to this people in authority: Do you teach your children that they have the right to say "no"  or resist an adult or uniformed authority figure when they feel their rights are being violated? 

I'll be honest, I'm not a parent yet, and I have a premature anxiety about this. It's a tough balancing act - teaching your child to respect authorities - that we hope and trust have their best interest in mind -  and also teaching your child to respect themselves enough to ensure their rights are protected. It seems like a lose lose situation:

-- You teach your kids to be docile, and they avoid police brutality but may be vulnerable to abuse.
-- You teach your kids to be assertive, and they might come face to face with the boot of a police officer.

We all like to believe that we can teach our kids the nuances that make them respectful yet assertive, or confident but humble, but it seems like a lot to ask of a child - particularly when the risks run so high.  This means it is up to the adults - the educators, the parents, the safety resource officers (an ironic title at this point), to ensure that situations don't end the way this one did. 

As adults, our experiences and intuition have helped us to generally discern when to stand up for ourselves and when to acquiesce to an authority figure's orders. (And yet we still fail sometimes). But for children, they haven't quite figured it out. Their priorities tend to be different than ours. Teenagers don't want to lose face; teenagers want to assert themselves, and teenagers don't often know who is a good guy and who is not. (Unfortunately, a uniform does not make someone a trusted, safe authority - just a powerful one. Moreover, research shows that students of color who commit the same disruptive behavior as their White peers are more likely to be dismissed from the classroom, suspended, or expelled - causing them to miss out on their education.*)

I don't have the answers. As I stated, I'm not a parent, and my career as an educator was too embarrassingly short for me to be an expert, but long enough to know it is NOT easy. 

I don't think we can definitively answer how we handle the balancing act children and teenagers face when interacting with authority, but focusing on how adults handle them will likely produce the most fruit.

What do you all think? How do you balance the two?

*Learn more about school discipline here:

NPR: Black Preschoolers Far More Likely to Be Suspended

New York Times: Black Students Face More Discipline

This American Life's Report on School Discipline and "Is it Working?"

Department of Education's School Discipline Report