Deconstructing Dignity and Respect with Rosalind Wiseman

Wiseman, Rosalind.Headshot

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Dec 5, 2022

For Rosalind Wiseman, the distinction is crystal clear.

“We often use them interchangeably as if they mean the same thing,” says the multiple New York Times bestselling author, referring to dignity and respect.

“Dignity is really a grounding that provides us a way forward in our actions and our thoughts, no matter what kind of relationships we’re in, and no matter how superficial or no matter how profound,” she shared during an interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today has written more than eight books. She is a multiple New York Times best selling author. One of her books was the blueprint for the movie Mean Girls. She is a speaker, entrepreneur and mother of two. Rosalind Wiseman is also the founder of an organization called cultures of dignity. She joins us today from Boulder, Colorado. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Oh, thank you for having me.

So I want to start with cultures of dignity. Why is it that you believe it is important for cultures of dignity to have been founded and to be started? What is its place in society today?

Well, thank you for asking me. And I think that we can all agree that we need more dignity, more sense of everybody has inevitable worth essential worth that cannot be taken away. And that so easily is lost today in the way that we talk to each other. And dignity is really a grounding that provides us a way forward in our actions and our thoughts, no matter what kind of relationships we’re in, and no matter how superficial or no matter how profound and and it is so important to be able to create an organization that really focuses on that, and then provide the tactics and skills to people to be able to put that that emphasis on dignity into action.

I’m curious as to what led you down this road, Rosalind in terms of identifying this as a potential gap in society and something that needed to be actively addressed?

Yeah, gosh, so I have spent my career the only the only career I’ve ever had has been to work with young people, and to be a bridge between young people and the adults that care for them, parent them, or in some way in relationship with them, which I could argue I think we all are, because we all have no matter how fleeting we all have interactions with young people. And, and so one of the gifts of that is that I have always been very focused on how young people are receiving the advice that we are giving them or the guidance that we’re trying to give them and specifically the words and how they are reacting to them. And one of the most interesting things about working with young people, and it has been a guiding focus for me, in my entire career is what are the words that we think are meaningful to young people, but actually maybe mean things that are very different, or have negative connotations or complicated, complex connotations that we think are just we know sort of what we as adults, we just think, well, we and we all understand what we mean. And that word, one of the words that’s really really reflective of that is the word respect. So parents love to use the word respect. Adults use love the word respect, schools love to use the word respect, we put it all over the walls, we talk to young people about it, we tell them they need to have respect to give respect to self respect. Respect is one of the most overused and Ill used words not correctly used words, in our culture, and especially with young people. And the wonderful thing though, about that is that dignity and dignity and respect often are conflated. We often use them interchangeably as if we they mean the same thing. And they don’t respect actually the history of the word. And what it really means is tied to people’s actions, that way they are doing things and have a position because of the way they have acted, that we admire. In contrast, dignity is to be worthy, you just have it. So respect is a given are so respected, earned, and dignity as a given. And when we use the word respect with young people, it can often really actually have young people disengage from us. Because respect is often actually a word that that signifies power differences between people. And so young people. And I think all of us, no matter how old we are, we have all seen, especially when we were young. Now, we’ve all seen someone in a position of respect and authority, use that respect that they have because of their position to take away the dignity of someone else. And that is one of the most complicated things about respect because when we have to show respect to someone who is doing that, we lose a sense of self respect, we lose this feeling of power of being able to look ourselves in the mirror. And so even if we treating someone with respect, and treating someone with dignity, actually looks very similar. But it actually feels very different. Because dignity feels equal. It feels like it’s just that we have this thing that is not going to be taken away from us. And so it feels much more empowering and much more that you are taking care of yourself, and that you’re not complicit in this abuse of power. You treat someone with dignity that you might not actually respect for good reason, because their actions are taking away the dignity of someone else.

It is you go about talking to young adults about dignity in the world that we live in today with all of the noise and all of the examples that counter your very argument.

Well, so the blessing of young people, is that when you have honest conversations that acknowledge the messiness of the world that we live in, and the culture that we are in the messages that are coming at us, that when we acknowledged the messiness, and the hypocrisy and the double standards that adults are consistently giving young people, when we are honest, young people move towards us, they want to have conversations about honesty, I with honesty, I can have very difficult conversations with young people, where we are very much in disagreement about the way we see the world. But they see that I am treating them always with dignity, and that I always am thinking that their lives, I don’t need to know the specifics of their lives to know that their lives are complex, and that they are navigating difficult terrain. And that if I’m going to be patronizing to young people, and I’m going to lecture them, and I’m going to lecture them before I listen to them about the context of their lives, then they have every reason to disengage from me, and to not take me seriously, even though I am a quote unquote, adult. And I think I mean, I know that young people, when they sense that from adults, that we are that we appreciate that they’re living in a very complicated world, and that adults are giving them hypocrisy and, and not being consistent. And that, for example, with parents, that young people are seeing parents often having self righteous temper tantrums about things or getting over involved in their lives, or controlling and enabling. And young people see this and they see the kind of role modeling we’re doing and they disengage from treat from taking us seriously. And even if they might be polite to us to our face. And it doesn’t mean we’re not important. It we are incredibly important, because adults that can have these honest conversations, acknowledge the messiness be ethical authority figures are that much more important to young people because of the contrast of what they see and other adults in their life.

Without question, so along those lines, how would you go about suggesting to a parent as a starting point, because all of you know, all of what you’re talking about really is rooted in the home? How can a parent go about teaching their child about dignity and what that entails?

So, um, you know, I think that a lot of parents worry about having people in their family that might treat other people in the family without dignity. And they are in a position of respect. And so you feel like you can’t say anything to them about their behavior. And that could be an uncle, a cousin, a grandma, grandpa, whoever it is, in your family, I think we all have experiences, where we are in relationship with family members, where we there’s at least somebody in the family that we vehemently disagree with the way they see the world. But not only that, but how they talk about it. And when we gather together in any kind of family get together, these things sometimes can percolate to the top. And especially if we have disconnected from people because of social media, because we disagree with them. And it upsets us to see them you know what they’re posting, or maybe we’ve done something on social media, and then they’ve gotten very in our face about it. And so we disconnect from them. And then it puts a lot of pressure on these family get togethers. And then we have our children, and we want to role model for them how to behave. And we also don’t want them to think that we agree with this person who’s saying something that we might be very against our values. And we don’t want them to see us as being pushovers and not being able to handle it. And we don’t know what to do. And that is an n, that is an absolutely reasonable thing to be confused about. Right? Really, if you have been confused about that. There’s all good reason for being confused about that. And that is a complicated situation. And we often say, You know what, let’s not talk about politics or racism, or any of the things that make people uncomfortable to keep the family peace, then yet there are people in positions of respect in our families that seem to like to do this to us as a way to sort of flex right their authority. So what do you do? Well, I would suggest very strongly, especially with family get togethers where there’s somebody who’s been, you know, cooking a meal for several hours or maybe several days to get the family together. You need to respect the work that that person has put into to create this family gathering. And so if you have this person who’s starting to push it, you and push your buttons And who knows better how to do that, then your family and your children are standing there or sitting next to you that, you know, feel it, you know, don’t sit on it sit on it, because then you might blow up about something but look small, but you’re actually blowing up about all the other stuff beforehand. And really, what I would do after like, the second kind of little dig is I would say to the person, you know what I really want to have this conversation with you. Clearly, it’s really important to you. And we are here to celebrate our family and being together and the hard work that this person has done to put this this moment together. So when you’d like whenever you’d like to talk about it after dinner, I really, really would like to, because you’re important to me or my family. And you know, whenever we can do it after dinner, I would love to do that. So any part of that that you can do, you don’t have to do all of those sentences, that feels really genuine to you. That’s the thing that you need to say, because you’re putting up a boundary, which is important for your children to see, you are demonstrating ethical authority in that moment, you’re not looking like a pushover, you’re saying this is important. Let’s talk about it. But we’re going to talk about it in the right time in place. And then you’re giving the other person limited options, basically, which is let’s talk about it, when would you like to do so. So you really do come across as an authority in that moment, and you are acting in ways that your children can respect and you are giving respect to the person who created this family moment. And you’re creating hopefully a thing where it does not where you’re putting the brakes on this situation really devolving into screaming or yelling or tension or all of that stuff that we all now, so dread so much. So that is the kind of moment that you’re looking for as an adult as a parent. And one of the things about parenting is that you don’t really have to wait that long before you get an organic moment to actually have your values being shown in action.

Absolutely. Now, let me ask you, Rosalind, because you go across the country speaking to, you know, schools, educators, students, I wonder what strikes you about what you’re hearing from young adults? Today, you talk about how they have an appetite to hear honest perspectives. But what what strikes you about what they are telling you and some of the interactions that you’ve had with them?

Well, so what’s so sad is that, and I think I understand the reason for this, and I definitely am always very curious about knowing more about why parents, there’s more parents who seem to be angrier, at the people who are taking care of in any capacity their children, from teachers, to coaches to I mean, anybody who works with young people. And I’ve thought a lot about this, because a lot of my job, and also as a parent, myself, I’ve really thought about, you know, why? Why are we seeing so many parents so angry, or so going from zero to 10, or as a teacher said to me recently, and then I’ve said this to other teachers, and actually, I’ve had people get tears in their eyes when I say this or nodding like we’re almost like in a religious service is that last April, I had a sixth grade teacher say to me, you know, Rosalind, I totally think that having a relationship with my students parents is so important. It’s so important. And I feel like there’s no boundaries on the relationship that I have with parents, either. I’m a life coach and a therapist. And I’m expected to be that for the parent or for the student, or on the other side, I’m expected to be okay with being a punching bag that they there’s no brakes on the accusations that they can send my way. And sometimes I don’t know what which one I’m going to get with whatever parent or I can get both in one day. And I really want parents to think about what that would be like to feel vulnerable every day, to being either the expectation of life coach or therapist or punching bag. And that when you make a mistake, that your competence or your integrity is questioned. And in the enduring that you are also then working with, I don’t know 2025 30 Young people who all have various ways of learning and you are managing just tremendous amounts of things constantly. And that’s what teachers are dealing with. And that’s why we have so many teachers leaving the profession. And it and I can relate to that. I’ve had parents as I’ve been speaking, who’ve been recording what I’ve said and whispering while I’m speaking and speaking badly about the things that I’m doing and not talking to my face about it because when people disagree with me, which is of course completely understandable. Then I want to have an adult conversation about it and I want to I’m curious about what they think I’m curious about the way they see the world So why why are we have we gotten to a place of such anger? And and I think this connects to your question about what do young people want us to know, young people want to be equipped to handle the increasingly complicated life that they are in and that they are growing up in. They are feeling like their education is not giving them that. And they are feeling that the adults are so busy screaming at each other and positioning themselves against each other, that they that children are losing out in the process. That’s the majority of young people that from what I know, there are a couple of young people there’s a there are the outliers of young people. And this is I’m not finding fault with them about this, I want to be clear, because this is developmentally appropriate, I probably would have done this when I was a teenager, is that there are some children, for various reasons, we’ll use their parents, what we would call in our, you know, an education language dysregulation their upsetness as a way to manipulate their parents to get what they want. And and I’ll say to this way, there, when parents are very up in the face of school all the time, one of the things that happens is that teachers are less likely to discipline that child interact with that child, because they’re scared, and they don’t want to deal with the ramifications of having an email in all capitals, or yelling or texting, yelling or anything like that. So they tend to disengage from that student. And one of the ways they do that is to not hold them accountable. And that impacts the whole school. And so I want parents to realize that the parents who are fussing and screaming and shouting that one of the consequences of that is that parents, I mean, excuse me, teachers don’t want to deal with that kid. And that impacts the entire culture of the school because other children see that that child is above the law. Now that child is doing something developmentally appropriate, which is they’re having a power dynamic with their parent, and they are flexing to see sort of how much control they have in the world. And and that, usually, you know, before things got so intense. We could have a, we could have some breaks on that, because there would be more likely that adults would talk to each other about these again, developmentally appropriate but obnoxious behavior. But now we have much less ability to talk to each other. And that really impacts the entire culture of the school.
Well, and it’s interesting to hear you describe it. I mean, most people would possibly agree with the fact that what you’ve described is like, you know, sliding downhill at top speed and what is going to stop it. So what will be the tipping point to kind of get it back to somewhere that’s normal? Let’s call it that for a minute. Is that possible? In your estimation, what needs to happen?

I think it’s possible, I think that every parent needs to like understand for the example that I just gave, where you might not be the parent who sends the difficult emails, and you might have good relationships with the teachers. But if you are part of a school if, for example, if you are a part of a Facebook parenting group, and on the Facebook parenting group is a parent who is saying the school did, for example, nothing about this horrible problem that happened in school, or on the other side, this draconian, ridiculous punishment, or they report that something that teacher taught something at school that is outrageously inappropriate. And then you see all the other parents on the Facebook, if they on Facebook groups, like oh my gosh, I can’t believe it. Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh, what should we do? Let’s sign a petition. But all the things that parent groups do, I would suggest that you actually verify verify the information. You know, every situation can be a little bit different. But I would I just would say that those Facebook parenting groups really encourage self righteous temper tantrums, they do not encourage verification of truth. And the other part is, and I really want parents to understand this. There are terrible schools, there are terrible administrators. There are terrible teachers. I’m not taking away from that. But the other the reality is that a teacher, a counselor, a vice principal, a dean, Administrator, whoever they cannot tell the general population of parents, what the discipline is of a particular situation or the details of a particular situation, without being compromising the confidentiality of the family and being unprofessional. They can’t do it. But in the meantime, the parent Facebook groups can say whatever they want about that school, and the school actually has very little ability to is a actually that’s not exactly that’s not exactly what happened. That’s the first thing. Second thing is that when children are disciplined in a principal’s office, or the parents are there, too, they can be sitting with the principal crying being like, oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I totally understand this, like, oh, my gosh, you know, all that stuff. But again, this is developmentally appropriate, but it has long reaching consequences, the child walks out of the room, and hit all of their friends are like, what happened? What happened? What happened to you how much trouble you in? And one of the things that kids will do, because they need to save face, right? It’s like they’re embarrassed about it. And that’s not terrible. It’s developmentally appropriate. But they’ll fib. And they’ll say, Oh, nothing happened, I totally got off, like I was totally, and they’ll totally dismiss it. And then everybody on that on the outside believes it. But in the meantime, that’s not exactly true at all. But the school again, can’t say what really happened, because then that violates confidentiality. So what we know to be true in a school is often not what is really true. And when we behave as if it is we really do a disservice to everybody.

Absolutely, I’d like to talk now about a concept that is increasingly important in the world of education, and that is social emotional learning. Could you tell us why social emotional learning is important and should be relevant to parents?

Yeah. So social emotional learning is a pretty big umbrella. And, and so what so I will define it as learning how, what your emotions are learning how to process and regulate them, and learning the tactics and skills to be able to manage yourself? Well, in every relationship that you have from academics, which means, you know, how do you raise your hand and take the academic risk to be wrong in a class, right? Like where you don’t quite know the answer, but you want to see like, what the answer is? Well, for young people, that can be pretty scary to be wrong. And, and that’s the process of learning, right? The process of learning is being uncomfortable, and trying on new things, and figuring out and getting your brain to think about things in a new way. So that you learn. So social emotional learning is about understanding emotions, processing them, understanding skills, as a result of understanding your emotions, to be able to manage yourself in interactions with other people. That is the definition of social emotional learning. It has become a catch all phrase for all different kinds of education for young people about the complexities of our culture. And parents, I think, are getting confused for good reason about what social emotional learning is. I mean, anti bullying programs could fit into social emotional learning, for example, and anti bullying programs, a lot of them can be terrible. I mean, I will be the first I am one of the first people to admit and I’ve been doing this work for a long time, that anti bullying programs were patronizing to young people, absolutely simplistic, not, didn’t ask young people, what the context were that we should be talking to them about bullying, we lectured them about it, we were patronizing to them about it, we did not give them realistic skills. We didn’t acknowledge the complexity of their relationships with each other. So it’s become a catch all for a lot of things. And as a result, I think the meaning has lost some of its meaning and young and adults. And when it’s not taught well, like anything, adults who are concerned about what we’re teaching, young people can get very upset about what they think the agenda of social emotional learning is.

Also related to this, we’ve talked about dignity. We’ve talked about respect, social emotional learning, but another area that is related to, to what your areas of expertise are. And the subject matter is the whole idea of ethical leadership, because on some level, you know, we’re talking about that ultimately, as well if we are trying to form leaders in our children, for tomorrow. So let me ask you, how do you define ethical leadership? And what does it take from a parenting perspective to try to build ethical leaders?

So leadership, we have many definitions of leadership and you can be a leader and use your leadership negatively to abuse power and to mock people to dismiss people’s experiences to make sure that your agenda is the only one that is that is recognized or valued. You can use your position to go after other people and take away their dignity. And that would be leadership. That would be negative leadership. But that would that is leadership. And young people see that, in many ways, in their lives with adults from politicians to mean, you know, to coaches to let me let me be clear, right. It’s like the adults in their lives are complicated, and they don’t see good role modeling, from people in positions of leadership quite often. And that’s an important thing for us to recognize. So, you know, there’s the one of the things I was talking to a group of fifth graders recently, who wanted to make very clear the difference between leadership and bossy ship, this is how they called it was bossy ship. And because being bossy when you’re in like early, you know, late elementary, middle school is a very, shall we say, vibrant conversation. And so for me, bossy ship is, you know, and how they defined it is somebody who doesn’t listen, and the way I define listening is being prepared to be changed by what you hear. And leadership is being prepared to be changed by what you hear, or it also means you don’t have to agree but you truly are recognizing that no one knows everything, but together, we know a lot, right? You know, I am in an I’m an educational leader. And yet, when I go to a school, I know that there’s a lot of experience and expertise in that room, that together we can contribute to helping the school. So a leader recognizes an ethical leader recognizes that while they do have expertise that other people do, as well, than that creating an environment where people feel that they will be treated with dignity, if they express their experiences and their opinions, and that the ethical leader creates the container for that conversation to occur. That is hugely inspiring for young people. It is also hugely inspiring for young people to see teachers, for example, and parents who allow them to have age appropriately, of course, but are allowing them to see the pain of the world and then get be upset by it and recognize and acknowledge that upsetness and then be inspired to make change. So you know, for example, in Canada, knowing and the United States, knowing the the history of First Nations people in both of our countries, and having young people be able to know the history of that and be upset by it, because they should be upset by it. And that that’s one of the experiences is they can have to say, this happened in my country, this happened in my culture. And I’m going to take this, this feelings of sadness, of anger, and I’m going to be inspired to make change in my country and in my culture, that as an adult, when you create that container for young people, that learning container for young people, you are being an ethical leader. And young people see that and really know that they have the space to be able to take the risks of not only the risks of learning, but knowing that you have confidence in them, that they can handle this. And then also if they’re upset, which they should be, you’re going to be there to say emotions are real, they are real, and they are powerful, and what you do with them, and how you process them, and what and your actions as a result of those feelings. That is that is what I’m looking for, we are going to go through this together on this path together as a parent to a child teacher to the student want a path together to create meaning in your life and purpose and how you contribute to things that are larger than you. And when you do that for young people. These are the things that you know, 40 years from now they look back on and say this is this is this was the crossroads where I decided what I was going to do in my life.

Absolutely, very quickly, Rosalind, I’d like you to take us through the key takeaways that you’d want readers to walk away with from your latest book, which is called courageous discomfort, how to have important brave life changing conversations about race and racism, because everything you’ve described in this interview has got to is relating to this this book as well. So what would you want readers to take away?

Oh, thank you for asking. So you know, and yes, this book is focused on race and racism and the skills that we are we are presenting are really for, as we talked about, in the very beginning of this interview, for every way in which you have relationships with people, when things get hard and any meaningful relationship, things are going to get hard. So and so how do you do that? And so the takeaways that I want people to really focus on is this thing of dignity is not negotiable. And you can you can try treat someone with dignity. And it feels just so much different than treating someone with respect that you don’t respect because of the way that they are treating other people. And I really want people to feel that and to feel like you don’t have to protest in the streets or make some grand gesture, we need to start small. And starting small is not small. The smallest actions are actually require a tremendous amount of courage. And so anything that you do, where you are embracing this philosophy, this this principle of living with dignity, and really thinking about how this word respect has played in your life, and then really thinking about self self righteous temper tantrums, have no place in our lives, regardless of our politics, that if we feel that we’ve won an argument, you know, you walk away from an argument, you’re like, I totally, I totally dominated that conversation. You know, actually, that’s the moment you have lost, because you have not convinced that person of something else, you’ve just shamed them or shut them down. And that if that happens to you, if you are feeling that you are being shut down, that you have the power to say to this person, I want to have this conversation with you. And it’s clearly really important to you, it’s really important to me, but I can’t have this conversation right now. Because I don’t think that you’re treating me with dignity. And I want to be able to have that as a foundation of our relationship. So let’s take a pause. And let’s come back when we both feel that we can do that. Let me know when you can let you know when I can, because it’s really important to me. And and this is the case our relationship is really important to me.

Tremendous Food for Thought Rosalind Wiseman, founder of cultures of dignity, New York Times best selling author and speaker, we so appreciate your time and your insight today. Thanks.

Oh, thank you for such wonderful questions. I appreciate it.

Thank you.

When it comes to respect, Wiseman defines it this way.

“…what it really means is tied to people’s actions,” she says. “The way they are doing things and have a position because of the way they have acted — that we admire.

In contrast, dignity is to be worthy. You just have it. Respect is earned, and dignity is a given.”

Speaking from her home in Boulder, Colorado, Wiseman, author of 10 books including: Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World — which was the basis for the movie ‘Mean Girls’. Her latest book, co-authored with Shanterra McBride is called ‘Courageous Discomfort: How to have Brave, Life Changing Conversations about Race and Racism’. It was published in the fall of 2022.

Wiseman is also the co-founder of Cultures of Dignity, which she considers a natural offshoot of her life’s work. The organization is described on its website as one that, “partners with communities to reimagine how to bring dignity and social and emotional learning to all.” Cultures of Dignity was founded in 2015.

“I have always been very focused on how young people are receiving the advice that we are giving them or the guidance that we’re trying to give them and specifically the words and how they are reacting to them,” Wiseman continues. “And one of the most interesting things about working with young people — and it has been a guiding focus for me in my entire career — is what are the words that we think are meaningful to young people, but actually maybe mean things that are very different, or have negative connotations or complicated, complex connotations that we think are just what we as adults we just think and we all understand what we mean. One of the words that’s really, really reflective of that is the word respect.”

Book cover.Courageous DiscomfortFor Wiseman, who speaks to students, educators, at schools and elsewhere, society’s use of the world respect is misguided.

“Parents love to use the word respect,” she says. “Adults use love the word respect, schools love to use the word respect, we put it all over the walls, we talk to young people about it, we tell them they need to have respect, to give respect, to self-respect. Respect is one of the most overused and [in]correctly used words in our culture, and especially with young people.”

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Rosalind Wiseman also discusses:

  • The differences between dignity and respect
  • Teaching dignity in the home
  • Social-emotional learning
  • What is involved in ethical leadership

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