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.
Going back in time, respect played an important role in survival. If we think of a small tribe wandering in the desert we can imagine that a person not respected by anyone could be left behind and die. Such a person was considered to have no worth, no importance, no value to the group. This, I believe is the foundation of our psychological need to feel respected.
Nowadays it seems much more possible to survive without being respected. Someone could, for example, inherit a large sum of money, have many servants and employees and have salesmen constantly calling on him and catering to him, yet not be respected in the least. Someone could also make a lot of money through having a particular talent which is valued, such as being able to dunk a basketball yet not really be respected, perhaps because of the way he treats others.
Still, there is a value to respect which money can’t buy. Though someone’s life might not depend on it, there are times, many times in fact, when another person has the chance to make a personal decision – a judgment call. When that person feels sincere respect for someone else, they will make a different decision than if they feel no respect, even if they have customarily shown a false, pseudo-respect to the person.
We can all sense whether we are respected or not. This holds true for those with money and power as well. Moreover, it is quite possible that those who pursue money and power are actually trying to gain a type of respect that they never have truly felt.
When we are respected we gain the voluntary cooperation of people. We don’t have to use as much of our energy and resources trying to get our needs met. When people respect one another there are fewer conflicts. In summary, it is for both evolutionary and practical reasons that respect is important, and also why we simply feel better when we are respected.
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.
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.
An example of the relationship between respect, obedience and fear is seen in a parent who uses threats to try to control their child’s behavior. A question worth asking is: Does that parent want the child to respect or obey them? Most parents would say: “Of course I want my children to respect me.” Then I thought about why some parents fail to earn the respect of their children, and instead have to rely on fear to try to control them. And I thought: “What happens when your children are not afraid of you anymore?”
Next I thought about a hypothetical conversation with a parent who might say: “I know how to frighten my children. That is easy. But how do I earn their respect?”
Then I thought, “Anyone can frighten a child, but not everyone knows how to earn their respect.”
Therefore, we must teach the parents, teachers and perhaps the world’s political leaders. We can’t hold them responsible for something which was never taught them.