One thing that sticks in my mind from growing up is how many people reacted with surprise and even shock when they learned that I called my parents by their names.
Mo and Jim, not mum and dad. You’d have thought I was some anarchist on a mission to tear down the confining structures of society. Yeah, well, about that…. Maybe another time.
Mum, dad, mother, father: these are roles, titles. Not people so much. It’s like when people insist on being Mister Smith rather than John. They say it’s about respect, but there are different kinds of respect. The respect here is an insistence that you acknowledge their authority. It’s a reinforcement of an unequal power dynamic.
There’s another kind of respect, the kind that can be earned through trust rather than demanded under pressure. It’s a mutual respect between equals, people of similar standing.
I listen to the people I respect, I value their knowledge, experience and skills. I recognise that they complement me and together we are more than the sum of our individual parts. When I agree with them or take their advice it is because I trust them, not because I am deferring to authority. I’m free to disagree.
But the other kind of respect, respect for authority? No, that’s compliance born of fear. I was a good kid at school: I did as I was told. I “respected” my teachers: I was terrified of punishment if I didn’t comply.
I hate that kind of “respect”. I don’t even think it deserves to be called by the same name as the supportive, empowering form. I make an effort as a parent myself to avoid being a figure of authority. Of knowledge and experience informing advice, but not a voice of command.
My child is not my possession, she is not an extension of me and she is not living my life. My job as parent is to love, teach and support her. To back her up rather than shield her, to be there when she needs me and step back when she chooses her own path.
I see too many parents who make the choices for their children, who talk about their child doing the things the parent “never had the chance to”. That always worries me: that sounds like a parent living vicariously through their child, projecting their own desires onto them.
There are so many examples too of that expectation that a child is supposed to pick up and carry on what the parent does, forming some unbroken line up through the generations. I bet a lot of folks don’t even see anything wrong with that. And that there is part of the problem.
Expectations are coercive, they put the child under pressure to suppress their own desires and interests. The child “respects” the parent’s wishes, by which I mean that they view the parent’s wishes to be more important than their own, or face censure or punishment for being rebellious. And that is wrong.
Independent thought should be encouraged. People should know their own mind and not be slaves to the will of their forebears. The whole concept of “following in your parent’s footsteps” is a barrier to social mobility: it keeps the masses down: aspirations of escape from the cycle are dismissed as impractical or impossible.
The realisation that our parents are just people is an important one. So is the realisation that the “respect” some demand is about maintaining their position of power over you. If somebody tries to tell you that something you do is disrespectful, they are really saying that you are questioning their authority.
So go right ahead and do that. Question authority. Do things because you want to. Decide who, if anyone, you want to respect because of your own values, not because they demand it of you. Live your life, not your parent’s.