In a conversation with a good friend who was born and raised in India, we had one of those east vs. west discussions. I think it’s natural to always defend the values of where you were raised to a certain degree, for me I was raised in the west, but had an Indian father and thus spent time with many Indian friends and relatives as well as having been to India a couple times so I’d like to believe that I can look at both sides objectively and see the best and worst of both worlds.
This particular discussion was about family values. My friend argued about the lack of family values here in the west, specifically the lack of respect for one’s
parents. I think even a lot of parents here might support her claim. In India there is a lot more respect for parents and the elderly in general. Before evaluating whether or not such statements are even true, let’s perhaps breakdown some factors that might be important in the different attitudes of children in the west vs. east. (Note here in the east I will be focusing about India, but India does share similar values with other countries in Asia towards family and parenting, and for the west mostly U.S.A and Canada).
In the west we might attribute a lack of respect to the following:
- Both parents working meaning less time to spend, discipline, and guide children
- In the west there is a general rejection towards authority, government, and hierarchy
- High divorce rate
- Highly valuing individualism over collectivism
- A tendency to be more mobile and not living very close to family
- A long history of a strong economy allowing for greater financial independence at advanced ages
In the east we might attribute greater respect to the following
- Relatively low divorce rate because of the emphasis towards arranged marriage, binding families and resources over an emphasis on romantic love
- Like many nations that have had historically high poverty rates (although India is an economic powerhouse now) have created a system in which there was simply no plan for the elderly to be taken care of should they become unable to take care of themselves. Thus grown children are expected to take care of their parents financially when they can no longer work.
- High population density and again the historically weaker economy means people are less likely to leave the area near where their parents live
- Less job opportunities for women historically and thus allowing many women to remain at home giving more time for discipline and guidance. This also reduces the amount of retirement money that would come into a home when the parents are older
I am sure there are probably others, but honestly I feel like a weaker economy historically and a lack of social security and retirement plans for older people has created a system over time that required closer family unity.
But regardless of the reason let’s take a look at whether or not it is actually true whether or not there is an actual difference of respect. First of all I have never actually seen a study that proves this is true. Certainly there are many studies that talk about the differences in behavior culturally between young and old, or parents and their children. However none of those studies really measure respect. The dictionary defines respect as the following:
“A feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”
It seems to me the first error in this discussion is that maybe we aren’t talking about respect, but duty, or obligation. I guess it could be respect if say “abilities” involves the ability to parent a child, but that’s a bit of a stretch, given that even a weak ability in raising a child can get one to adulthood. So respect seems to be something different and it is not clear whether there is a difference between east and west. A soldier in the military can follow the orders of a superior out of duty, but still not respect that superior.
I have known numerous Indian children who were given little freedom in choosing what they wanted to be, who they can marry, how they want to marry, etc. Well I’m not saying they obeyed purely out of duty, because clearly there is love there as well, but I do know some children who resented their parents for taking advantage of that sense of duty and love to set them on a course in life that they did not want. It’s somewhat questionable to me how much respect there was. They often did what they were told even though they were unhappy about it. Parents in the east would do well to recognize that their kids are not simply extensions of themselves but individuals.
On the other hand, parenting is not really easy. It’s easy to doubt yourself and your actions. A lot of times you might just default to what your parents did to
you instead of really adopting a practice you are not comfortable with. Raising kids takes time, energy, and resources. Kids growing up in western culture would do well to remember that and appreciate more often the sacrifices and difficulties associated with raising them. However, does not listening to your parents indicate a lack of respect for them? If we value individuality as a nation, isn’t likely that your child is simply expressing that individuality. This can be hard when you see them making mistakes, especially the same ones we made. But isn’t that how we also learned some important lessons. Again, just because a kid chooses to ignore your advice and do their own thing, doesn’t mean there is a lack of respect, it just means they feel more compelled to exercise their own judgment right or wrong and see where it leads them.
Whether it’s duty or respect, I asked myself after the conversation with my friend, why did I have a child? Was it so I could raise somebody who would listen
to everything I had to say about what to do in the world? Was it so I could instantly have someone who respected me regardless of my flaws, weaknesses, and the way that I treated him/her? The answer of course is no, but what is absolutely wonderful about the parent – child relationship is that it begins with love. There is an implicit trust and affection built in, and so we only have to think how best to foster and grow that love from the simple biological relationship to the complex relationship that binds any two people together. As I watch my son grow I can already see his sense of self forming, and I know it will only get stronger with time. It seems that we always have to remember that respect runs both ways with our children and I hope I have the wisdom to know when to let him express his individuality even if it runs against my better judgment and my need to remain his protector. Being able to let go is also a quality worthy of respect and it seems to make some sense that as children grow the qualities that they admire in you and others change. I hope that I will be able to grow along with him and adapt to his changing needs and desires while remaining an ever present part of his life.
While there are differences between east vs. west parent – child relationship I don’t think any one of those is a better way of doing things. Respect is always earned and I think it is best earned when a parent demonstrate an ability to understand what their children are going through and by constantly being there for their child. I think this is what builds a lasting respect between parent and child.