The other day we had a few friends over for dinner. During the course of the evening, the discussion veered towards children showing respect to elders.
A phrase that came up was "Bade logon ka lihaj rakhna chahiye".
In a complete sense, the phrase does not mean 'respecting elders'. It actually means 'showing respect to elders without necessarily feeling it'. Kind of a veil of respect for elders.
Children of yore were brought up with a whole notion of how every adult had to be respected and that the respect had to be displayed in the established ways of 'saying namaste', 'touching feet' etc.
Those generations of children who were brought up like 'sheep and goats' (do not question, just follow), put up their best behaviour for every uncle or auntie who visited the household. The 'Parivar ki izzat' was at stake each time there was a visitor and the child was asked to recite a poem, or answer a question asked or fetch a glass of water for the visitor. In society, the respectability quotient of the parents depended on the shiny black shoes of their child's uniform, on the remark of 'good' received in the notebook and on the rank procured by him in the exams. A child who brought disgrace to the family by not doing any of these things was persona non grata when visitors came visiting.
Or rather, if I may say so, a child who behaved just like a child by speaking his mind, or by making mistakes in exams, or who had yet to overcome his shyness in front of adults, such a child actually was considered to be disrespecting his elders. "Voh maa-baap ka lihaj nahi rakh raha tha".
Come to think of it, isn't the idea of 'lihaj', useless and pointless? Isn't all respect to be earned?
Even a young child is able to garner an emotion akin to 'respect' for an adult he feels safe with. He does not have to be told to show respect. In his own way he will express his love and affection for an adult who engages with him. He may not reply to their 'hello', but he may give a shy smile. He may not touch their feet, but he may listen intently when they talk to him individually on any topic. He may not fetch water for them or may refuse to answer their question, but he may share his favorite book with them when they are willing to listen.
We adults often get caught up in our set ideas of how 'respect' should be shown. It could be a product of our own upbringing and the expectations out of us; it could stem from our need to conform in society; it could also come from our insecurities as parents, our urge to produce 'trophy children'.
Whatever the reason, the business of showing 'respect' and 'lihaj' can safely be left in the hands of our young ones.
All parents and caregivers these days are tying themselves in knots about teaching their young ones about 'trusting and not trusting adults'. In addition to all that has surfaced in a 4-year old's life, he now has to also deal with 'good touch and bad touch'. So the scenario has now shifted to where he reprimands his angry mother for treating him with a 'bad touch'.
Wouldn't it be simpler for all of us if we let our children develop their own sixth sense about whom they wish to show respect to and who they want to shy away from. If we do not interfere with their in-born ability to sense who they feel safe with, will they not be more confident around strangers. They will be better able to trust their instincts without relying on cues from their parents. If we Indian parents stop thrusting upon our children the decadent ways of 'showing respect' and 'lihaj', will we not be able to bring down the episodes of child abuse, especially by those within the family. When we help our children develop their instincts and then respect the decisions taken by them, we are nurturing independent and confident individuals. And that could be the way forward.
So next time your child says that he does not like to go to Uncle X's house, do not insist and do not give him your spiel about 'It is bad manners. Do not be disrespectful. We can't leave you and go. But he gives you a chocolate every time'. Your child may not be able to give you the reasons, but his instincts may be guiding him in making a safe choice. Trust him.