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Respect is a two-way street

Listening, not reacting, leads to better understanding. At the SoE programme in Chennai.  

One evening, a harassed-looking woman approached Dr. Vijay Nagaswami in Chennai. Before meeting him, she had withdrawn into a shell, seldom interacting with friends and being conspicuously silent on social media. Her trouble, she told the doctor: her son was entering his teenage years.

The audience at the sun-lit, airy Spaces in Besant Nagar, Chennai, laughed when the doctor recounted this incident on September 27, but the woman’s worry resonated. With adolescence being pushed back to early years and with more and more children being exposed to the Internet and glued to the television, parents now worry endlessly about how to cope with adolescence, more than ever before. How do they deal with uncomfortable questions such as sex? How do they speak to their children about drugs? How do they tell them what is a good career choice? How do they know what’s going on in an adolescent’s muddled head? These and several other questions were addressed by Dr. Nagaswami, psychiatrist, therapist, and author, and Uma Shanker, director general of Indian Montessori Centre, in a panel discussion on discovering ways of fostering mutual respect between children and adults. The discussion was organised by Schools of Equality (SoE), an activity-based programme that engages with equality and human rights, in Chennai.

The main questions were: what is respect and is respect between adults and children a two-way street? The first question, asked by Ms. Shanker, threw up many responses. Respect is equality, understanding, compassion, empathy, said audience members. Some gave examples. All of this is respect, but it is much more than just gestures, Ms. Shanker responded. “We stand up when our teachers walk into a classroom, but we may not love them or respect them very much. We may fall at an elder person’s feet, but because we are told to do so. But this is just a show of respect; respect comes from within, you need to feel it,” she said.

The answer to the second question was an emphatic ‘yes’. Respect is a two-way street, both she and Dr. Nagaswami emphasised.

Chilled parents

Parents often feel a sense of ownership over their children and feel they must know every thought in their heads. When children refuse to open up, parents feel alienated and “go into a tizzy”, the doctor said. He explained the difference between anxious parents and ‘chilled’ parents, as explained in Shelja Sen’s book All you need is love: The art of mindful parenting. The anxious ones believe that an adolescent’s mind is solely preoccupied with sex and sexuality and become agitated imagining their children’s thoughts. While adolescents do think about these, they are far from the only things occupying their minds, Dr. Nagaswami explained. And even if they are indeed thinking about sex, parents cannot do anything about it. But it is important that they speak to them about the practice of safe sex; of sex as an art rather than just a science, devoid of emotion and love. These parents who do speak to them calmly, listening to the adolescent rather than just “lecturing” them will be ‘chilled’ parents, better parents. ‘Chilled parents’ are also those who don’t think of the Internet as an evil thing, television as having a spoiling effect, and who don’t worry about their daughters speaking to boys who, according to them, want only one thing.

Mutual respect goes a long way in fostering good relationships, he said. When parents say their children are not respecting them, it often means they are not obeying them. Listening to what children have to say rather than immediately reacting and shouting them down will help parents understand adolescents better.

The world is rapidly changing and it is hard for parents to grapple with the fact that the icons of their years such as Jawaharlal Nehru have now been replaced with the icons of today such as Mark Zuckerberg. But rather than worrying about it, having conversations about it will help, he said. “Don’t tell them, ‘When I was your age, I didn’t speak like this to my parents’,” he said. “Adolescents get put off. They don’t care what you were like when you were their age.”

Respect is transactional. It is something we feel; it is reflected in our behaviour. If we treat children as adults, too, let them make their own choices, such as in their career for instance, and allow them to bear the consequences of that choice, there will be a better understanding between the generations, Dr. Nagaswami said.

SoE, founded by lawyer Gulika Reddy, is a school-based programme that enables students to understand concepts such as equality and justice and diversity, not in the traditional lecture format but through art and activity.

It interrogates these concepts in the context of class, caste, gender, sexuality, religion and disability. By asking children to view films and cartoons, read books, listen to music, write essays and so on with a critical eye, SoE tries to expose them to underlying prejudices and stereotypes in pop culture and media and treat each other with respect and dignity.

Ms Reddy, 27, feels that law alone cannot initiate change, but changing attitudes will, albeit slowly. The programme is active in several schools across Tamil Nadu. The panel discussion was organised by Nritijuna Naidu, programme coordinator at SoE.

(Radhika Santhanam was associated with the organisation in 2013)

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2020 1:19:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/education/respect-is-a-twoway-street/article7774576.ece

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