By Father Leonard Peterson

This past September featured an unusual trifecta. Not the kind that rewards bets at the racetrack, but a trio of incidents exhibiting shameful human behavior. I refer to the unexpected incivility on display from a congressman, a tennis player and an entertainer.

You remember that editorials responded, and letters to the editor appeared everywhere. But nowhere among those reactions that I noticed was there any attempt to assign a cause. The fact that such behavior seems to be increasing makes me wonder about a possible cause.

I make my humble suggestion that it likely starts with permissive child-rearing. How we went from the clear discipline parents generally exercised with their children some years ago to the mishmash of parental discipline we have now I leave for sociologists and historians to explain. Begging children to behave or bargaining with them to do so is observable in any public place. To me it spells future trouble. But try telling this to some parents and their resistance is greater than that of a wartime group.

Some people claim the change has come about due to the influence of Dr. Benjamin Spock. But Spock defenders deny this. Others say it’s caused by TV shows, especially those that feature tongue-tied parents constantly confronted by wise-cracking kids.

An unusual incident happened in our parish recently that illustrates the problem. Our preschool teacher described an incident in which she corrected one of her young charges for his misbehavior. The child reacted by hitting her. Imagine! From a little tyke. The teacher told me she had not met that sort of reaction from a child in all her nearly 20 years’ experience. But when the incident was reported to the child’s mother, her astounding reaction was even more startling: “I’m not surprised.”

Granted this was an unusual manifestation of a loose upbringing. But you have to wonder how that child will understand the concept of respect. When he has a future disagreement with someone, will his reaction be disrespectful, or worse? If he were to become a congressman, a tennis pro, or an entertainer, would he display the same boorish behavior in public and then halfheartedly apologize for it as we all saw last month?

Disrespect has long reigned on our highways, and anyone who drives knows it. Granted, the notion of disrespect here is less obvious. But when you stop and think about it, phoning and texting while piloting a multi-ton vehicle is disrespect for one’s own self as well as for any passengers and others on the road. But that’s a subject for another column.

In this Respect Life Month, our Church focuses on combating the evils of embryonic stem cell research, abortion and euthanasia with a belief quite opposite that of our culture. But I don’t think it is too great a stretch of the respect life concept to dwell on the first word as well as the second. A litany forms: Respect is part of life. Respect belongs to all those who deserve it. Respect demands we show it, no matter our age or position. Respect is a principal difference between the animals and us. Respect is what God deserves and human life demands.

Ah, but having accepted that litany yourself, don’t ever bet on its universal acceptance. Place your imaginary wager on the almost weekly public violations of respect, and the half-baked apologies that follow.

Father Peterson is pastor of St. Maria Goretti Parish in Hatfield.