Dangerous respectWhen we instill in children an unquestionable respect for adults, we render them powerless
I live in proximity to a seven-year-old and a four-year-old. In an attempt to get them off their phones, I hang out with them often. I succeed when I bring balloons and water paint. There are times when they are so engrossed with their phones that it’s hard to get their attention. Their grandma will tell them to acknowledge my presence and engage with me. Kids are always asked to give their attention and show respect to ‘adults’ around them.
Respect. As of late, I am starting to see how this word is used selectively. Sure, kids ’shouldn’t’ be on their phones so much but that’s not my point here. What I am asking is: Do we afford children the same respect we demand from them?
Scene: An adult shows up to the house of a friend or relative. The child is on the phone or doing their thing. What is usuall said? ‘Come here, meet so and so…Namaste gara, Darshan gara’ children are told. Sometimes this adult will want to hug the child or put them on their laps. At times, adults may not want to engage in such practices but the parents, in an effort to project their child as ‘good and obedient’, will decide for them. If the child complies, they get praised: ‘Oh what a well-mannered child.’
If the child doesn’t engage, parents will muster an apologetic ‘Oh they are shy…takes time to get used to a new person…kids these days are so crazy about phones’.
Just an innocent, well-meaning, social dance. Or is it?
Worldwide, the statistics are the same: Children are abused mostly by people familiar to them—relatives, teachers, neighbours—or someone in proximity who has relational power over the child. This experience is unfortunately so universal.
Here, I see a correlation between forcing children to be respectful and the feeling of powerlessness that survivors discuss when they share their own #metoo stories. Our approach to instill in children an unflinching and unquestionable respect for adults is rendering them powerless.
I am writing this to draw our attention to intentional ways of engaging with children, drawing from personal as well as experiences I have had working in the field of mental health.
Here’s a thought: Along with teaching children to respect their elders, what if we taught them to respect the needs of their bodies first—making the articulation of those needs a priority over fitting in, over pleasing and appeasing. What if we taught children to have a healthy dose of suspicion of those older (known or unknown) people around them?
When we as adults show respect to those around us, children in our vicinity see that this adult is getting respect. Nothing is wrong in that realisation itself. However, what tends to happen is that we assume that just because a person treats us well and has gained our respect, our children should do the same.
These ‘person vouching’ practices are dangerous because it assumes that the people we trust will treat our children in the same manner. A child will likely not be able to articulate abuse at the hands of a person that their family tells them is a respectful and good person. Imagine the dissonance. This child will ask themselves, ‘Is this what a person who should be respected does?’ They will likely not talk about it because we value obedient children over curious ones. We value what is on their marksheets over what they have to say. Social cues teach us early on that some things just shouldn’t be talked about.
As children grow, they will start discerning for themselves that just because someone is respected doesn’t mean they are a good person. But along with this realisation, children also learn who is powerful and who is powerless. Say a teacher respected by everyone touches you inappropriately; you soon learn that even though it’s an incredibly traumatic situation, the odds are stacked up against you because you, as a minor, do not hold power. Not only are you economically dependent, but you also don’t have social markers that indicate your competencies like an educational degree or a job. The teacher, on the other hand, is an adult who holds power in all arenas. When, as an adult, you decide to speak up against that teacher, the intersections of caste, class and social status play out, and you remain disadvantaged. The odds are stacked up even more if you are disabled, transgender or both. Your retelling of what happened isn’t enough. Here, the message is painfully clear: The experience of your body is not considered adequate evidence. And children are exposed to this message from very early on in their lives, evident by the ways in which their bodies are treated.
Think of the ways you see the bodies of little kids handled around you, in your family circle, in your neighbourhood. Does it look like the child is being taught to own their body? On the contrary, we pass around three-year-olds, kiss them forcefully, ask them to sing, dance in front of us as they squirm in protest (that we completely ignore). I get so uncomfortable when a kid is forced to sit on an adult’s lap and it takes me back to countless times I was told—and at times, forced—to do the same.
If our early ages are devoid of examples of consent being respected, boundaries being set, needs for intimacy being expressed, and the need to be left alone acknowledged and respected—how will we know the difference when they are transgressed upon? And although our body may tell us that it is being transgressed upon, we are not taught the language to voice our concerns. And this is how trauma sets in; Our bodies shut off because feeling anything then becomes too difficult for survival.
As kids, we don’t learn that respect should be a two-way street. We don’t learn that adults don’t always know better and, most importantly, that children aren’t blank slates to be filled in with morals and values to tame them. We do not learn about consent. It is no longer enough to say ‘Don’t get into cars with strangers or don’t walk home in the dark’. It is not enough to say ‘good touch’ ‘bad touch’ because bad touch could, in some cases, feel good to a child to feel positive—abusers know all too well how to contort situations to their advantage.
Let’s start with understanding that children have agency. I know that as parents and teachers, we want our children to be well-mannered individuals. And we want to show them how to be respectful by serving as an example. We now need to extend that same treatment to children. Show them that you respect them by expressing how grateful you are if they agree to complete their homework on time or help out with household chores. Say sorry when you make a mistake, when you are stressed and snap at a child around you.
Give options for physical intimacy by asking, ‘Can I get a hug or a handshake or a fist bump a high five a clap of celebration to mark an occasion?’ When you want to change their clothes ask them first. Surround children with examples of what active consent looks like with other adults.
Consent isn’t just attached to instances of sexual exchange. All exchanges are on a continuum and we need to practice consent in all interactions. As we acquaint ourselves with practicing consent, we need to pay attention to the context and the language used because ‘no means no’ but ‘maybe’ can also mean no. A child fearing corporal punishment from a teacher and thereby complying with what is asked of them is not consent; a child coerced into a hug with a chocolate is not practicing consent. Caste, class, gender and sexuality always factor in all of these instances.
Remember, respect is demanded of communities of colour, lower caste, and marginalised folks. This coercion is sometimes made mandatory for their survival. One of the biggest disservices we can do to our children is to tell them that our homes and classrooms are neutral territories where everyone is treated equally—when that is not at all the case. Instead, we can actually work towards making these spaces safer by engaging in the language of consent and respect on a daily basis through honest conversation about inequalities in all spaces, at all times.
Ask your child what kind of world they envision; ask them what they want to see change. Also, think back to the time when you were a child, remember the times when you were bullied, body shamed or sexually abused while adults did not notice or cast off the situation as harmless. What kinds of hopes did that kid have for the world? What did that kid envision or wish would change? Lets start from there. Let’s start listening to our children.
Raji Manjari Pokhrel is a Kathmandu-based mental health worker providing in person and online psychosocial counseling. Raji can be reached at email@example.com.