28 February, 2008

Respect - Does it not have to be earned ?

Earlier this week, as I made my way towards the MTR, I saw and heard something that sent me rolling down memory lane and set me thinking.

Enroute to the MTR, I came across a mother/preteen daughter duo who were walking just behind me and they were deeply engrossed in an argument. Or rather, the daughter was at the receiving end. Apparently the whole thing had started because the mother had wanted her daughter to wear a green T-shirt and the daughter had quite apparently opted for a red one. Incidentally, they ended up waiting for the same train that Yours Truly was waiting for and they too headed for the last compartment as it is easier to find empty seats in the last compartment. The tirade continued. By the time they’d found seats on the train, the mom was in a totally “Fury Unleashed” mode.

The daughter was a total mixture of emotions – shame, embarrassment were written large on her face at the scene that was being created and the tears threatened to overflow anytime. At the same time, one could feel the anger that had built up in her, that feeling of resentment that was almost palpable. The last straw that broke the camel’s back was when the mom screamed “Could you not have listened to me ? Have you made up your mind never again to listen to what I say ? Can’t you respect my feelings ? I am your mother – never should you forget that. You are supposed to do as I say.”
To which the young girl hissed “How can you expect me to respect you when you don’t have even a little bit of idea as to how I feel most of the time. How I am feeling now when you are screaming at me in front of all these people. You don’t respect my feelings even a little bit. ?”. That led to another screaming session from the mom.

By then, I had reached my destination. My head was pounding – not because of all the noise that had been generated and the commotion created but because at that point of time I could so identify with that young girl. And I could understand perfectly well as to how that youngster felt, having myself lived through countless such scenes.

I certainly am not going to go about making any value judgements on the above scene but what kept coming back and haunting me was the only words that young girl had muttered.

During my growing up years parental command was a way of life and was unquestioningly accepted and followed. There was absolutely no questioning the chain of command, however, as that was always regarded as open mutiny and was dealt with very strictly. Arguments or voices of dissent were a long long way off. They were unimaginable. What my parents wanted me to do, I had to do. Period. No questions asked !!!

Which brings me to my present question ?

As parents, is it not necessary for us to earn our kids’ respect ? Or is it something that is taken for granted ?

During my growing up years, it was pretty much taken for granted and there was no specific concept of “earning your childs’ respect”. Just by virtue of being their childrens’ parents or elders of the family, it was assumed that being respected was one of their many perquisites.

I personally choose to disagree with this assumption.

Respect from another person is something that one earns – through ones actions, through ones character, through ones opinions, through the way one handles oneself and most importantly, by respecting the individuality of the other person.

Each person is unique, each personality distinct. And that element of individualism that makes a person who he or she is, has to be respected. And I personally believe that this is the case even with our children. Parents cannot expect children to look up to them just by virtue of being their biological parents.

I’ve said this before too and I’m saying it again. Conceiving a baby, carrying the baby around for nine months and giving birth to the baby does not complete the picture of parenthood. This is just the beginning. Parenthood is more like a journey – one which never really ends. It is a journey where one moves from one phase onto another and another. It is a journey which has its highs and lows, its thrills and trials, its joys and bittersweetness. Therefore, claiming the mantle of being a child’s biological parents does not give parents the right to stipulate or exact a child’s respect.

It has to come from the child – naturally.

Why is this concept so difficult to stomach ?

Why should one just assume that there is no need to “give” a child respect because he or she is chronologically younger than the parent ?

There was this incident that happened last year.

Aparna attends BalVihar classes conducted by the Chinmaya Mission in Hongkong. In their curriculum last year, they were doing the alphabets A to Z. As in teaching children good qualities that start with the letter A and teaching them to avoid bad ideas that start with the same alphabet and so on and so forth.

When they were about reaching the alphabet M, the Chinmaya Mission had drawn up plans to conduct “Matru Puja” on a worldwide basis. The basic idea being that children would worship their mothers, as the term “Matru Puja” indicates. It was going to be a very short affair. The mothers would be sitting right in front of their children and I believe the children would be sprinkling some water on their mothers feet, putting kumkum on their mothers feet and then doing aarti for their mothers.

When an email landed in my Inbox, I spent a lot of time introspecting on the issue. Simply because I was not at all comfortable with the idea. It was not a feeling of embarrassment but rather a question, a reservation about the necessity and validity of this whole venture. And after talking this over with Vic, both of us were of the same opinion – we did not want to be part of this. We spoke to Aparna about the whole thing and explained our point of view to her. We wanted to make sure that we were not putting her in a spot with airing our views and acting upon them. Eventually I spoke to Aparna’s BalVihar teacher about my misgivings and requested to be excluded from the proceedings.

Later, there were phone calls from the Head of the Chinmaya Ashram, asking me to reconsider my perspective and my attitude towards the whole Matru Puja program.

“Would you not touch an elder’s feet as a sign of respect ?” she asked.

“I would” was what I said. “Because that is what I’ve been trained to do. And even if my heart were not in it, I still would touch their feet just to avoid hurting anybody’s feelings.”

And added “At this point in my life, respect is something I would consider complete and pure when the physical act of touching a person’s feet or falling at a person’s feet is accompanied by an equally strong feeling of respect stemming from within my heart. I would not choose to disassociate the two. Just touching a person’s feet, in my opinion, does not construe respect. It could be “seen” as a mark of respect but is it reverence in its true form if it is not supplemented by a strong sentiment within the heart of hearts."

Even in the case of our children – we do not wish to have them worship us nor do they have to physically touch our feet or do a “puja’ for us in order for them to show that they respect us. Just because one touches another person’s feet does not necessarily mean that they respect them and vice versa.

What is more important is establishing that rapport which makes it possible for our children to approach us, as their parents, freely and without fear, be it to ask for our opinions on a particular issue or ask for our counsel. And in each and every action of ours, as parents, it is indeed imperative that we bear in mind that they are individuals in their own right.

When children are little, there are a lot of decisions that we, as parents, take, on their behalf. But that feeling of respecting them and their feelings manifests itself when we give them choices. It gives them a sense, an element of control on a particular situation and this sense of control is so very important in the development of their self-confidence and individual self-identity.

There may indeed be many occasions when a parent has to say No to the child. But this too can be accomplished in a more even manner. Isn’t it better if a answer in the negative is completed with an explanation as to why the request was turned down – rather than to just say “You cannot get that or you cannot do that. I’m telling you that and that’s it. You better do as I say or else …..”
Cee Kay wrote a very balanced post on this very topic a while ago. Read it here.

As parents, we do tell them how to handle situations or what to do or how to go about it to the best of our knowledge but if and when children choose to put forth questions about how we arrived at a particular conclusion or even if we do have to explain our actions, I would say it is better to take that approach rather than be forceful about the whole thing. Children and parents may not always see eye to eye on many issues but that just expands the equation rather than curb it. And indeed there may well be situations where children see different shades to a particular issue that we, as adults in all our infinite wisdom, might well have missed out on. All that is needed is to listen to them when they air their views or opinions or requests rather than a blunt “I know better than you so you listen to what I say and not the other way around.”
"The first duty of love is to listen" - Paul Tillich

Instead of forcing kids to see things our way just by virtue of being their parents, a dialogue is an infinitely better option. Through this constant interaction, exchange of opinions and out of the fact that their viewpoints too are being appreciated, there develops a feeling of mutual respect and warmth – things that were hitherto taken for granted.

When it is a done thing in society to say that respect given is respect earned when one talks about the mannerisms and behavior of adults towards adults, why not extend this courtesy to children too ? Why then, should parenthood be synonymous with dictatorship ? Why does parental autocracy need to rule when there is room for consent, compromise and harmony to thrive ?

Like I said in one of my earlier posts, a parent’s responsibility does not end by bringing a child into this world. On the contrary, that is when it begins. In bringing a child into this world, nature hands parents the job of sculpting another life – physically, mentally and emotionally. It is indeed a huge responsibility.

I remember coming across a Chinese proverb which goes

“Respect for ones parents is the highest duty of civil life.”

Would it not be so much better if respect were given willingly and meaningfully from the heart rather than just out of a sense of duty ?

And I found the answer to this question in an anonymous quote which resonates how I feel about this value and it goes

“Respect cannot be learned, purchased or acquired – it can only be earned.”

Edited to add :

Firstly, there seems to be a bit of confusion on the "feet touching" issue. When I wrote about the Matru Puja incident and about what touching a person's feet means to me - I was putting forth my opinion and mine alone. That said, we do touch elders' feet and like I said earlier, many a times it is because I don't want to end up hurting their feelings. Our kids too follow suit. It is perfectly fine. Just because I feel the way I do does not mean I tell my kids not to touch elders' feet. Nor do we explicitly ask them to touch the feet of each and every elder that they come across.

Dottie also brought up an interesting point in saying that there is a fair amount of confusion between common courtesies and respect. As far as my dictionary goes - it is something like this. If I do happen to meet a elderly person anywhere and start off a conversation with "Namaste Uncleji" or "Namaste Auntyji" - that is common courtesy. Touching their feet - definitely a sign of respect. :-)

post signature

16 voice(s) said so:

Altoid said...

Very much so, its better to earn it than demand it.

As regards to "why" not everyone gets it, is probably insecurity? And the only way to have those younger than you to comply is by using the age trump card. Unfortunate for sure and most times quite challenging to make them give up this stand. I've been fortunate my parents never enforced it upon us, but then in their generation, there was none of the open communication channels that exist now.

Like they say you know- growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional.

karmickids said...

Am running around tagging people, so will comment later. BTW, Tagged.

DotMom said...

nice post! Respect is always earned. No matter what. But I also feel there is a fair amount of confusion between common courtesies and respect. I tell Chip to touch feet of elders. At his age it is simply because they are older and yes, at present wiser than him. Slowly, it will be a common courtesy when he visits elderly family. I don't see anything wrong with it.

Preethi said...

Very lucid post.. but I am wondering.. what is respect? Is implicitly listening to a parent respect? I recently commented on this in another post. I would hope that my son is convinced before he listens to me. Then he will follow that even when I am not around! And this has been my biggest parenting struggle. My son is only 3 so its very difficult to explain certain things to him, but I try.
As for showing respect by touching the feet or elders, that is the tradition we were brought up with. And to me it is a traditional show of respect and I think I will encourage my son to do so. Having said that I do agree that respect is earned. But do you think our kids of ages 3 or 5 or 8 know how to determine if the respect has been earned or not? I think that maybe just by virtue of being older and wiser its not so wrong to show respect to elders!

rajk said...

Hi, my first time here. The word "MTR" caught my attention and brought back memories of my trip to HK a long time back!
However as I read more your post seemed all the more relevant because I'd just had a "fight" with my 4 yr. old which ended with my telling him "I am your mom and you have to do as I say, period!". Now that I write it down I can see how unfair that is but I believed it when I said it.
I felt myself nodding as I read your views on Matru Pooja, touching elder's feet etc. I think you are doing a great job raising your kids.
Hope to read your blog regularly from now on...

Aryan said...

Well said....It can on;ly be heard by giving respect...
Aryan's mom

dipali said...

I strongly believe that our children are also deserving of respect in our treatment of them. We may not fulfill their every wish, and indeed should not, but the 'how' we treat them is terribly important. Earlier generations were perhaps harsher and followed more disciplinarian norms. I am all in favour of discipline, but in imparting it with basic courstesy as far as possible. In Hindi we have a lovely phrase- 'badon ki izzat, chhoton ka lihaaz'.
Treat your elders with respect, and youngsters with consideration.

And yes, I do believe that respect has to be earned.

choxbox said...

Thought-provoking post Gauri. Respect, like trust, is earned and not demanded.

My FIL refused to let me touch his feet even in the wedding ceremony though it amounts almost to sacrilege in their circles. MIL also just gives me a hug when we meet. I really like her and respect her perhaps as much as my mom. I do disagree with her every so often (but that I do with mom too).

Have seen some uncles/aunts of mine regularly do the feet touching and give gaalis to the same person later. Here clearly feet touching is not equal to respect. Good exercise though.

the mad momma said...

i wrote abt this long ago and got into an argument with everyone around. yes. respect has to be earned. obedience - is a different issue.

Gauri said...

Altoid : The only difference probably is that the age trump card used to work earlier on. In todays world, I don't think it will - even if it does it will be short term.

Kiran : waiting ...... :-)

Dottie : There's an addendum to my post :-)

Preethi : I never meant to synonymise respect with "implicitly obeying parents". That's precisely not it.
And on the point of whether a 3 year old can discern respect - my personal opinion - at their level - yes. At around ages 5 and 8 - most definitely so.
Will email you in detail.

RajK : Welcome here. Was HK your home or were you here for a holiday :-) ? And do hope to see you around more often.

Aryans Mom : Thanks

Dipali : Trust you to put the whole thing so succintly and beautifully. :-) Thanks.

Choxbox : I've seen it many a times here too N. In fact once a kid touched an elder's feet and five minutes later called her a cow. And it was after the Matru puja that I got to know that among many Sindhi families it is quite normal for parents to dissuade their daughters from touching their feet - because daughters are considered "Ghar ki Lakshmi".

Maddie : That's one thing (among many others) that I love about you and respect you for. You speak what's on your mind and you are forthright about it - whatever the issue on hand. Not many people have that kind of strength of conviction. Hats off !!

Rohini said...

I think you are awesome for standing up and refusing to do the school ceremony. Not sure I would have had the guts to do that.

I like your approach to respect being earned rather than being taken for granted.

Ano said...

Excellent post, Gauri. Agree with you 100%.


dipali said...


2 B's mommy said...

I personally don't touch anyone's feet cos in our family girls don't touch parents feet and my in-laws are no more. Rest of the elders I come across, I greet with a namaste. I would have felt very uncomfortable with the 'matru puja' too since I don't think that I am so great that someone should touch my feet and I do think that respect has to be earned. But, touching feet isn't always about respect ( though it should be) cos in some families its just the way you greet elders. Infact, haath jodna/namaste is also a sign of respect along with a 'greeting' - A proper namaste is haath jodna accompanied by a slight bow to show respect, but how many of us think of it that way ?

Itchingtowrite said...

u r right abt respect being earned... and an older person or youngsters behave exactly the way they see their parents behave! we can teach the norms by example and the concept of respect will be in my opinion self learnt based on observation

bird's eye view said...

I agree respect is earned, especially in today's day and age. When we were kids, we were brought up with a paternalistic view of the world, in which you had to respect people regardless of who they were just because of the position they occupied - relatives, parents' friends, parents themselves...Today we live in a much more egalitarian world so you can't just automatically respect anyone - be it your boss or parent.