A Question of Respect
(Or, Grown-Ups and Their Double Standards)
When I decided I wanted to write a piece on respect, I imagined I’d do some kind of in-depth examination of one central, juicy question. Somewhat predictably, on the journey of looking for it, I found a whole pile more. So, I’m here with not just one question about respect, but loads of them.
And no specific answers.
All these questions did, however, take me on a really useful thought adventure, and my hope is that you might embark on one, too. Maybe, like me, you’ll arrive at the end with some well-considered answers of your own. However, you might need to sit with some of them for a while.
My Definition of Respect
I think that questions of respect are tied inextricably to questions about power. If we want to bring up children who make a positive contribution to the world around them, children who are more whole and happy within themselves, then we cannot escape looking into our own relationships with power and respect as a part of our conscious-parenting journey.
Before we go further, I’d like to share with you how I define respect. For me, it’s actively considering and holding another’s thoughts, feelings and preferences as valid and worthy. This, then, directly informs my actions in relation to this person. I may not agree with them, yet I always aim to consider their perspective. Being respectful means that my intention is to act from this place.
The Question I Started With…
…was this: “Do children deserve as much respect as adults?” I’ve always answered it with an emphatic yes… even when my outward behavior may have seemed very much at odds with this response.
When I told my 10-year-old son what I was writing about, he suggested that I title my article “Grown-Ups and Their Double Standards.” What he said first struck me as pretty funny, and yet in reality it shines an uncomfortable spotlight upon my own hypocrisies. That’s exactly why I decided to include it in the title of this piece. He forced me to reflect on the number of times I’ve asked my kids to do stuff or behave with each other (and other people) according to a standard that I often have trouble meeting myself.
Can We Offer What We Never Got?
Most of us have grown up in western mainstream culture. It’s a culture in which children are not shown a great deal of respect. More often than not, their wishes are either ignored or paid lip service.
In our own childhoods, our genuine likes or dislikes might have been trampled upon (Make sure you eat everything on your plate!). Our experience of a situation might not have been listened to (I don’t care whose fault it was, just go to your room!). Our right to do the things we enjoy might have been taken away from us (You may want to learn the ukulele, but you need to study classical guitar first!). There are loads of examples, and I could certainly add to it from my own less-than-optimal parenting moments.
Of course, some of this comes from a good intention. Parents want to feel respected, and they feel that teaching their children to respect them is good for them. This is right…kind of. Having people in your life that you respect, and learning to treat people with respect, are both inherently good things. Yet, when we think of the “respect me just because I am your elder” kind of gig, what good will really come from it? What about when parents try to create respect rooted in fear?
We can all tell the difference between true respect and the kind of false respect that is really a wolf—fear— cloaked in a sheep’s clothing. So can children. Contrast that with the kind of respect that gives you something to strive for. This kind of respect is a reflection of something authentic within us.
I aspire to being someone worthy of respect. In fact, when I consider this notion, I think it’s pretty central to the essence of respect. We respect the people we aspire to be like. How, then, can I offer this to my children?
Creating Right Environments
So how do I live a life of someone worthy of respect? As with most things, I probably need to start with me. Do I respect myself? That question leads to another: Does the life I have created feel like it respects me?
If you feel like your life does not, what impact do you imagine this has on your children’s experience of you? Does a life which feels congruent with who you are make it easier for you to cultivate respect for yourself and others? If you experienced a greater sense of “fit” between yourself and your life, do you think you would find it easier to behave respectfully to others, including your children? It’s a question I’m asking myself. A life that feels congruent with my true nature surely means that I am respecting myself.
Maybe there are things about the very structures that we live in that make us compromise this value. I mean, I may say that I respect my children, but in reality I find myself apologizing to them more than I would like. One thing I feel doesn’t fit with me (and therefore may contribute to this) is the very family structure I live in.
I feel that the nuclear family culture (which is usually just Mum, Dad and the kids) forces us to miss out on the kind of extended family/community support and contact that all human families require. I see it as fundamentally disrespectful to what families actually need to make it all work for everyone.
With the pressures that this “too-closed” system bring to bear, is it any surprise that we lapse more easily into our bad habits? I think it’s much more difficult to foster an attitude of respect in a structure that is so fundamentally disrespectful to those within it.
I’m not saying this as a way to excuse bad behavior toward kids. I’m simply pointing to the fact that tired and under-resourced parents are always going to be more likely to react. And disrespectful behavior can be one of those patterns of reaction—especially when we already have a cultural blind spot around respecting kids as it is. When you add “tired and stressed” to “traditional nuclear family structure,” I reckon it sucks for everyone!
Food for Thought
I’ve already raised more than a few, and I hope I’ve got you thinking. Here are a few more questions…
When does a human being become eligible for respect? Is there some bridge we cross? Some level of maturity we reach when suddenly we are allowed to get the same level of respect as all other human beings? Do we start off with deserving just a bit and then work our way up to “full respect”?
Does the respect we give to adults have a different quality to it? Why? Is this right?
If we don’t respect ourselves, does this mean that we can never really offer true respect to others? Will any respect we give be forever tainted? Is this the best place to begin, and if so, what might respecting yourself really look like in practice?
Do you respect your own parents? What for? Perhaps there are things you wished they had embodied? How does this play out in your relationship with your own children?
When you think back to your own childhood, do you feel you were offered a different level of respect than the adults around you? And now, as an adult, what is your own relationship toward respecting children—including your own? What are the long-term effects of growing up in an environment in which it feels like your thoughts and feelings matter? What about the opposite scenario? What would someone growing up in that situation take out into the world?
“Mum, You’re Out of Line!”
As I sat on the bed of my 10-year-old son one night last week, he spoke about how he was glad he felt OK to talk to me about anything (big yay!)—“even,” he added, “when you’re out of line, Mum.” I love this.
It was, in fact, this very conversation with my boy that brought forth this article. It’s been so cool to talk with him about it, and to use his great title! I’m grateful for his contribution, and I know he felt respected.
I can honestly say that when my children pull me up for speaking to them in a not-so-good way, or when they expose one of my own double standards, my heart sings. OK, so it might not sing right away (ha!), but when I’m back in my center once more, I feel so happy that they know that they deserve respect. And they do more than just know it: They are prepared to make a stand for it.
These moments with my kids provide me with an insight into how I’m really making a difference in their lives. It’s times like these when I can see it all coming together.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #43.
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