If you run the word ‘respect’ through your mind what images appear before you? The faces of your parents, grandparents and, maybe, a teacher; the touching of feet and the folding of hands in a gesture of deference to the other person might be some of the first associations you make. The word ‘respect’ rarely brings up the image of a toddler, repeatedly calling for his parents’ attention; or a teenaged girl trying to negotiate with her dad for an outing past sunset. So, let us ask ourselves what respect really means, as opposed to our perception. Let us ask ourselves why and how to respect our children, who certainly are individuals in their own right, with aspirations, beliefs, fears, needs and the whole gamut of human emotions.
Respect sure is serious business!
We hear the word being used frequently in the context of expectations of being treated with respect, and feeling hurt and let down when treated with disrespect. But what does it really mean when we say we want to be respected? Speaking at an event hosted by Schools of Equality,
Uma Shanker, Director General of Indian Montessori Centre, ponders, “What does the word ‘respect’ mean to us? Is it recognition, acceptance, understanding and empathy? This one word has so many associations, but one thing is for sure. Respect is a two-way street. This street needs to be worked on. I recently read this, ‘Respect is an unassuming and resounding force; the stuff that equity and justice are made of’.” Truly, respect is, above all things, acknowledging another person.
Respect and the early years
In a lifestyle dominated by distractions, mounting pressures and scarcity of time, we often forget to notice that our children are individuals in their own right. They want to be noticed, need to be understood and deserve to be respected. Uma Shanker adds, “Do we respect our children? How do we show our respect? We don't need to stand up when a child comes into the room. In the Montessori community, we say that we have to become worthy of the child. Loving the child is not enough; you have to respect the child. Children have some wonderful qualities and they need to be acknowledged.”
Uma also believes that children are more sensitive to our emotions than we actually realise. “The way we listen to our toddlers is important. It is not just the words, but the emotions in those words that need to be registered. From a very early age, children try to express how they feel. A child who has been left at school by his mother or his father might cry, because he doesn’t have the words yet to explain how he feels. Normally as adults, we respond by saying, ‘Don’t cry’. Just like any other individual, they need time to get through an emotion and try to understand why they are feeling that way. If you legitimise their feelings, children feel understood and accepted. Respect cannot be achieved without being mindful of the other person,” she explains.
Control vs Camaraderie
What is it about the teen years that drives parents into such a tizzy? Dr Vijay Nagaswami, eminent Psychiatrist and Author, explains, “Our primary fear, as parents of teenagers, is not knowing what is happening in their heads. Parents feel inadequate and alienated. If you want to know what a teenager’s mind looks like, just imagine the busiest signal in your city at rush hour! It is definitely a tough place to be. However, parents see this angst-ridden behaviour as ‘disrespectful’. When we say that our children do not respect us, we basically mean that our children are not obeying us. Respect has nothing to do with obedience.” After all, how can we respect our soon-to-be adults if we are too busy trying to control them?
Dr Nagaswami adds, “The period of adolescence serves to form a clear template to negotiate life in the years to come. This subversion is a very active and positive tool for growth. As adults, however, we are looking for the responsible teenager, which is an oxymoron.”
Respect also greatly manifests in the way we communicate. Dr Nagaswami opines, “We need to learn to listen to adolescents. Frequently, instead of listening to them we presume what they have to say and provide solutions and advice. When we sense a problem with our teenager, we say, ‘We need to talk’ - the four scariest words in the English dictionary!”
“We need to remember that respect is something that we feel and is reflected in our behaviour in the relationship. An approach that says, ‘I will tell you and you will have to listen to me,’ is never effective. You are going to have a resentful, angry and disgruntled teenager on your hands. We need to grant that by being subversive they are not being disrespectful. Genuine respect for our children comes from understanding that they need to feel like individuals. Try and be a responsible parent, a mindful one, a respectful one and, above all, a caring one,” he adds.
Discipline vs Autonomy
Respect and discipline should go hand in hand. Uma Shanker feels that the way children behave depends largely on the examples they see around them. It is only fair that parents model the behaviour they would like children to pick up.
Also, as a parent, you are responsible for your child. Therefore, certain ground rules need to be set
Dr Nagaswami says, “Parents of teenagers need to create broad perimeters keeping in mind the social environment. I have seen parents who say, ‘Your curfew is 7:00 p.m.‘ This might seem unreasonable to a teen. When you set impossible perimeters, you lose the connect with your teenager. When you are setting a rule discuss it with your teen. Reason with him and trust that he will prefer it to a dictatorial approach.”
What parents say
“Respecting a child means believing a child is a little person with thoughts and feelings of his own. Children need our guidance but they need to be given the regard that we would give any adult. Using our power as adults to hit or punish children is the worst form of disrespect which we think of as normal parental behaviour.” - Kesang Menezes, Co-Founder of Parenting Matters
”To me, respecting my child is about treating her as a separate sentient being rather than an extension of me, my dreams and ideals. This respect extends to her thoughts, dreams, aspirations, ideals, moralities, quirks, flaws and shortcomings, even (or especially) when I know they don't align with mine.”- Kavitha Chandran, homemaker.
Therefore, let us respectfully raise our children.
The five R's for respecting children
- Respect their feelings: They might be little kids, but they feel no less than any adult. Understand and legitimise their emotions.
- Respect their opinion: You might not agree with them, but they are entitled to their own opinion.
- Respect their temperament: Make allowances for their own personalities. Help them grow but never seek to change who they are.
- Respect their privacy and space: Being individuals, they have a right to privacy (within reason).
- Respect their needs: Children today, have challenges and requirements that vastly differ from what we had, growing up. A little empathy can go a long way!