What Respect Is
Respect means a lot of different things. On a practical level it seems to include taking someone’s feelings, needs, thoughts, ideas, wishes and preferences into consideration. We might also say it means taking all of these seriously and giving them worth and value. In fact, giving someone respect seems similar to valuing them and their thoughts, feelings, etc. It also seems to include acknowledging them, listening to them, being truthful with them, and accepting their individuality and idiosyncrasies.
Respect can be shown through behavior and it can also be felt. We can act in ways which are considered respectful, yet we can also feel respect for someone and feel respected by someone. Because it is possible to act in ways that do not reflect how we really feel, the feeling of respect is more important than the behavior without the feeling. When the feeling is there, the behavior will naturally follow.
Where Respect Comes From
As I see it, respect is something that is earned. One earns another’s respect by voluntarily doing the things I mentioned above, such as taking that person’s feelings, needs and thoughts into consideration.
Respect seems to be like a boomerang in the sense that you must send it out before it will come back to you. Respect cannot be demanded or forced, though sometimes people mistakenly believe that it can, as I discuss below.
Since a baby has no concept of respect, and feels only its own needs when it is first born, I believe that the only successful way to teach a child what respect is, is to earn the respect of the child as they slowly grow into a thinking human being.
The way this is done is first of all by attending to the child’s natural needs, such as to be fed and nurtured. As the child grows, his needs change. He has increasingly sophisticated psychological needs. He begins to express his own views, his own preferences, and he has an increasing need for freedom, autonomy and independence. This is when the adults in his life can treat him with increasing respect and thereby earn his respect in return. The more he develops into his own person, the more there is something there which can earn the respect of the adults.
It doesn’t make sense to think of respecting a baby in the same way that we say we respect an adult. Yet on some level the two concepts are similar. This similarity has to do with our voluntarily helping that person with their needs. In either case, we must first accept the needs. For example, if a baby needs to be fed at three in the morning we don’t do it begrudgingly if we respect his natural needs; we simply accept that the infant has a natural need to eat at that particular moment. Likewise, if an adolescent or an adult needs to talk, we accept this need and we show respect by listening voluntarily.
Respect and Parenting- Consequences for later in life
When we do not feel respected by our parents while we are living with them, we have an unmet need to feel respected later in life. This is such an obvious statement, yet it needs to be said. It is one of the clearest examples of what happens when our emotional needs are not filled in the right amounts at the right time by our parents. People who did not feel respected by their parents tend to take things personally later in life. They may make a big “scene” over something which to other people would seem small. They do this because they are in pain from the lack of respect which they are still feeling, one which originated many years earlier, but likely was not allowed to be expressed.
They may demand to be respected by their employees, their children, their students and the sales clerks in the supermarket. They make seek positions of power where they have authority over others as a way of trying to fill their unmet need for respect. But when they are in positions of authority it is easy for them to confuse respect and fear. When they are feared, they are not respected. When they try to use authority and fear as a substitute they find that they still feel unfulfilled since you can never get enough of a substitute.
On the other hand, another consequence might be that they have such low self-esteems that they never feel worthy of respect. In this case they will let people take advantage of them, abuse them and manipulate them.
Respect, Fear and Control in Education and Society
In many countries it is now illegal to hit children in school. In some countries, such as Sweden, it is also illegal to hit them in their homes. One result of this shift in social thinking is that children are becoming less afraid of their teachers, and of authority in general. In the past, the fear of physical punishment was often one of the main ways of maintaining control of the classroom and of society.
The trend in many countries is away from this form of control. I support this trend, but at the same time I am afraid we have taken away one method of control without replacing it with a better one. We have told the teachers you can no longer hit the children. But we did not tell them what to do instead. The result, according to many teachers, is sometimes chaos. What is needed is another basis of control.
I believe that respect is this other basis of control. This respect must be earned though. It cannot be forced or demanded. It must not be confused with fear. If we confuse fear and respect we are right back to the use of fear.
Some more on demanding respect
Many parents demand it indirectly: They tell you that they respect you so you should respect them, then scream at you incessantly.
The parent who won’t give it thought will tell you that having a nice home with 3 meals a day is their way of earning it.
The bitchy authoritian parents will tell you off the bat that the adults always get respect from the kids, no matter what they do to kids.