I was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.
The man didn’t respond. “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”
The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.
“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.
“Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused. My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.
The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.
But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.
Why should we take off our hats for the national anthem? Why should we stand up for the flag? Why should we address strangers as “Sir” or “Madam,” wear coats and ties to church or synagogue, and give up our seats to the elderly?
It’s a matter of respect. Respect for people. Respect for institutions. Respect for wisdom and values and human dignity.
Unfortunately, respect has been going out of fashion for a long time. Sex scandals and no-fault divorce have eroded respect for marriage and commitment. Partisan politics has eroded respect for leadership. Inflated grades and deflated standards have eroded respect for teaching. Abortion-on-demand and doctor-assisted suicide have eroded respect for life. “Reality television” has eroded respect for ourselves.
Which was our first step onto this slippery slope? Maybe it was the noble ideal of social equality, set spinning so wildly out of control that we began to equate respect with elitism. Maybe the information glut convinced us that we know as much about medicine as our doctors, as much about cars as our mechanics, and as much about education as our children’s teachers. Maybe our relentless pursuit of leisure time has made us too selfish to value age and experience, too lazy to act civilly toward our neighbors.
When respect is not earned, it disintegrates; when respect is exploited, it implodes. Indeed, after his desperate quest for legacy, Bill Clinton was best remembered at the time of his departure as the American president who made his underwear preferences a matter of public policy, who pilfered the White House china, and for whom a large percentage of once-self-respecting Americans so casually excused perjury in federal court. Barack Obama will leave behind the first video of an American president making faces in the mirror in preparation for an historic selfie.
But we should never rely on respect to percolate down from the top; it is our responsibility to grow it up from the grass roots. It is the job of parents to teach their children to say “please” and “thank you,” to not interrupt and not talk with their mouths full, to speak civilly and give up their seats to the elderly, to pick up their own litter and maybe even someone else’s. By doing so, parents instill in their children an intuitive sense of respect for others, even if their children may not understand why all these social minutiae are indispensable.
But too many parents have abdicated that job, either because they’re not around enough or because they never learned to be respectful themselves.
The Talmud says that where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader yourself. In today’s increasingly fatherless society, teachers, scout leaders, and little league coaches have a greater obligation than ever to teach respect by showing respect for others — and so do we all every time we walk down the street or through the supermarket aisle.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And a journey through life begins with a step in the right direction. Help a child take that step and, many steps later, his success will speak his thanks louder than words.
Every Father’s Day offers a reminder to say every day: Thanks, Dad.
Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch