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I wonder if our society’s appetite for media that portray disrespectful behavior as humorous leaves us tolerant of disrespect.

She sat across from me, a look of disbelief on her face. As she spoke, her eyes grew larger, her voice stronger. “These things would never, ever happen in my country,” she said. “But if they did, there would be a big problem for that person and for that person’s family.”

Angela, a high school student from Vietnam studying in the United States, was sharing an incident from one of her classes that day. A student had been arguing with the teacher, refusing to follow instructions and even calling the teacher by his first name. She went on to recount similar examples of what she called “disrespect” between students and teachers.

When asked to describe what might happen to a student who disrespected teachers in Vietnam, Angela’s eyes grew large again as she listed a series of consequences. The student would be required to write a letter of apology to the teacher and to write a series of lines promising never to disrespect a teacher again. The student’s parents would be called into the school office for chastisement and a demand to better train their child. 

Having lived and taught in an Asian country for more than four years, I knew this last consequence was the worst of all. In Vietnam, as in many Asian countries, society gives high significance to what is called “saving face.” According to Alida Brill, “Saving face signifies a desire—or defines a strategy—to avoid humiliation or embarrassment, to maintain dignity or preserve reputation” (Psychology Today, Nov. 2009).

Because saving face is so important to Vietnamese parents, everything possible is done to ensure that children respect teachers at all times. For that reason, you’d never hear a student arguing with a teacher or refusing to follow instructions. And you’d never meet a student who referred to a teacher by his or her first name—ever.

Angela’s observations about what went on in the classroom caused me to consider my own responses to disrespectful behavior in my classroom and to recall missed opportunities to help students practice respectful behavior in schools and classrooms throughout my teaching career. It seemed to me that adults in our society—myself included—needed to teach and hold our children to higher expectations of respectful behavior.

There are many reasons why a sense of respect for teachers has fallen through the cracks in our culture. Some teachers have abused their power over children or have demanded respect in ways that are detrimental to students’ emotional health and well-being. Additionally, the movement toward raising a child’s self-esteem has society reiterating the mantra that children must only be affirmed and never, ever shamed. While affirming children is a good thing, and abuse of power is never acceptable, I wonder if we have gone too far. I wonder if our society’s appetite for media that portray disrespectful behavior as humorous leaves us tolerant of disrespect.

When I was in school, the phrase Have you no shame? and others like it (Shame on you!) was a common response to wrong behavior. It was a call to consider my actions, to feel, yes, shame for what I had done, and to allow that shame to shape my future actions. Today, using either of these phrases in a public setting these days would likely draw accusing glares toward the parent or adult who speaks them—and rightfully so in the case of parents who use them to belittle children and decimate their sense of self-worth.

Because we avoid using the word shame in our culture, I wonder which word might take its place. I wonder if there exists a form of spoken communication between adults and children that requires us to examine our disrespectful behavior the way “Shame on you!” did for me and “saving face” does for Asian students. 

But more important than remembering how the concept of shame colored my upbringing, I need to reflect on how “shame” is used in God’s Word. Scripture often talks of Christ’s shame and how it covers our own shame. More than once the psalmist asks God to take away his shame or to keep enemies from causing him shame. But other Scripture passages seem to acknowledge shame as an appropriate response to wrong behavior:

“Let the wicked be put to shame” (Ps. 31:17).

“God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27).

“When pride cometh, then cometh shame: but with the lowly is wisdom” (Prov. 11:2, KJV).

“Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret” (Eph. 5:11-12).

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways” (2 Cor. 4:1-2).

“Whoever robs their father and drives out their mother is a child who brings shame and disgrace” (Prov. 19:26).

The biblical use of the word shame often points to actions that dishonor ourselves, flagging behavior that must be changed. These verses compel me to feel shame of my own: shame for students who have been allowed to disrespect their teachers; shame for parents and teachers who have dropped the ball in training children to respect others; shame that an exchange student from Vietnam has a negative view of the American classroom. 

It took the eyes of a 16-year-old from across the ocean to arouse in me a fresh urgency about how we might help our children to develop a respectful attitude. I want to learn better ways to train children to examine shameful behavior in the light of behavior that honors parents and others God put in authority over them. Perhaps it’s time to engage in more discussion about what respect should look like at school and at home. As parents and teachers, we must use words and actions that call children to respectful behavior that honors Christ rather than shames him.

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