In America, society privileges individualistic cultural traits: being independent, competitive, and assertive. Americans also emphasize pro-social ways of acting, such as giving a firm handshake and making eye contact. Historically, people with these sets of values, beliefs, and ways of acting have secured and remained in positions of power over time. The term “culture of power” is associated with individuals who exhibit these characteristics and thus, they have control over the majority of money and people in our society. These values originated and are still associated with being White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male.
Due to sociopolitical reasons, these values are unfairly elevated. Thus, some educators have posited that all children need to be exposed to the “culture of power” or these particular individualistic values, beliefs, and ways of acting so that they are not at a disadvantage in society. From this perspective, teachers and parents may be doing a disservice to their children if they do not teach them how to access the culture of power.
Today, many parents in America want to make sure that their children have what it takes to secure white-collar jobs. However, parents also want to raise their children within the culture of respect. Respect has often been equated with collectivistic values, which emphasize being obedient, listening to authority, and valuing cultural norms. Within the culture of respect, it is assumed that when a parent tells a child what to do, he or she should listen and respect their elders—not question what they have to say.
From this point of view, it seems as though the culture of power is at odds with the culture of respect. Thus, how do parents instill the values of respecting authority while also teaching them to question authority? In some situations, children must learn to question authority and make decisions for themselves. For other situations, children may be expected to choose their parents wishes’ over their own interests.
For example, my son who is six can independently decide what to wear to school or what types of after-school activities he would like to participate in. However, there are times when we want him to wear something nice or do an activity (e.g., swimming) that he may not want to do. At that time, we tell him that he needs to be respectful of our wishes. We explain why respect is important in our culture. We explain that for our family it is important to respect your elders and their wishes. We talk about how sometimes you have to do things for others even if you don’t want to do them.
In the past, these values were implicit and unconsciously transferred from the parent to the child. Parents, who were raising their children within the culture of respect, simply expected their children to listen to them. Parents who were raising their children within the culture of power taught their children to always question authority including their parents. However, today, we want our children to be able to navigate through their lives with skills that allow for them to draw upon their multiple perspectives and values in life. This can only be done by explicitly communicating the rationale behind the values that you are teaching your children. By doing this, we can begin to teach our children how to live within the culture of power and the culture of respect.
By Amita Roy Shah, Ed.D.