To Sir, With Love


Actually, this was the title of a classic film from the 60’s. It had a famous soundtrack with a great song by Petula Clark. I’m aging myself, and that’s what this post is really all about. I’ve now noticed that everywhere I go people keep calling me “sir” – even old guys at church, gentlemen that I would refer to as sir – they are now calling me “sir” – what’s happened?

Have I all of sudden aged? Maybe. The past few years have been unusually severe. But I can’t imagine it would turn me into a “sir” – maybe a “bub” or “crackpot” – but whenever I hear “sir” I recoil with a slight shock. Are we as a society suddenly becoming very proper? I doubt it.

My students send me emails addressing me as “hey.” I’m not a professor so much as just another tweet. We had Christmas stockings hung in our college and all the faculty members had their first names only spelled out. All very casual. No danger of too much respect happening here.

Every now and then I run across a young man who will say “yes, sir” over and over.  He’s been well-trained and full of respectful interaction conduct. During those rare exchanges I feel like I’ve fallen into a military academy. Sometimes it’s a little over the top.

Is there a bigger application here? The last census reported that a third of our children live without their biological father. How do kids, especially young males, learn respect for authority figures like teachers, police, coaches, ministers and older relatives? How successful can this be in a single-parent home (usually a home with a single mom and no male father figure present)?

My point is that the fabric that holds our society together is stitched with all kinds of common values and practices. When we aren’t able to pass on much that we have in common, like how to demonstrate respect or live/work together in an orderly fashion, then we start to experience a kind of disintegration that keeps each one of us from thriving as well as we could. Those kids who were raised in fragmented homes end up missing out on valuable elements of social capital (habits, attitudes and behaviors) that benefit them once they begin their ascent into the larger society.

I’m not suggesting all our problems would be solved if we all started calling each other “sir.” What I mean is that all the little ways that we treat each other begins to reveal how well we’re actually held together as a society of real people. And… sitting around in a room full of strangers glued to your cell phone isn’t doing much to keep our fabric from fraying.



About Randy Wilson

Professor of Sociology at Houston Baptist University I read, think and write about religion and culture in the United States. It's very interesting and very complicated but incredibly exciting. For many years I have been trying to figure out how people learn best (my students and myself). The classes I teach are always in a state of experimentation - trying to reorganize around what students bring to the table and where we have to go.

4 thoughts on “To Sir, With Love

  1. I may have misunderstood, but are you suggesting that I am unable to teach my son basic manners and respect because I’m a single mother?

    1. Not at all!
      In fact I have no idea about what’s going on in your family. All I can do is report about social findings (the forest not the trees). As a whole, children from single parent families have a much more difficult time (grades, health, success, etc). That doesn’t mean these numbers are necessarily true for your family. There are always exceptions to the rule.

  2. While I’m sure there are statistics to suggest children of single parents have a tougher time in terms of ‘grades, health, success etc’, this is not the focus of your post. You speculate:
    “How do kids, especially young males, learn respect for authority figures like teachers, police, coaches, ministers and older relatives? How successful can this be in a single-parent home (usually a home with a single mom and no male father figure present”. I fail to see how I, a single mother to a (very) young male, will be unable to teach my son to respect his elders purely because his father does not live with us. Respect is not a trait exclusive to men. It can be taught and learnt by anyone. Judgements of single parents (regardless of statistics) are never helpful, always hurtful and only further the negative stereotype already perpetuated by people who have no idea what it is like to raise a child singlehandedly.

    1. I think it’s really difficult to raise a child singlehandedly. In fact I study this and know that it’s difficult. It’s not a stereotype to point out the facts. Remember, I have no idea what life is like in your family and how successful you are at parenthood. I’m writing about a social phenomenon taking place in America. Fatherlessness has a cost.

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