What is respect and why is it so important in families?
Most people who study respect talk about it very differently
than I do. They talk about it in a hierarchical, pyramidal
way—with the more powerful people at the top and the
less powerful at the bottom. Those at the bottom are supposed
to be deferential to those who have more skills and more
power. Approbation is given to those at the higher end of
the totem pole. One is respectful to one’s elders,
to one’s teachers, to the CEO of the company. It’s
is to reframe the whole notion of respect. The image I use
is of a circle, rather than a pyramid. Even if there are
differences in power, knowledge, or resources, there is
still a symmetry and equality to respectful relationships.
It is respect that creates that symmetry.
for the nuance and detail of how people communicate respect—
how it really looks in action. Respect is rarely carried
just in talk. We see respect more clearly in behavior, action,
and interaction. Children learn about respect primarily
through watching their parents operate—watching how
they treat their neighbor, or how their parents show respect
with money when the children are given an allowance.
it is respect that generates a feeling of empathy for one
another and appreciation for what each contributes in different
ways. This respect builds trust and communication. An example
is the common scenario where one spouse is making most of
the money—or there is some other unequal amount of
resources coming in. That should not mean that the person
who is bringing in more resources should get more respect.
In our society, so much of people’s worth gets equated
with how much money they make—with material resources
and wealth. The view of respect I take challenges those
inequities and those hierarchies that are based solely on
view respect as carrying empathy and trust and communication
among equals. Whoever you are, you are worthy of respect.
That respect creates the equality.
How can families cultivate respect?
It’s more about doing and embodying than it is about
telling and teaching. When I was a small child and lived
out in the country with my family, we would sometimes come
into New York City in our Ford station wagon, with my siblings
and me in the back. I remember driving across the George
Washington Bridge and my father paying the toll, which was
50 cents at the time. The people who collected the tolls
wore uniforms, and they had their names on them. My father
would greet them every time, saying, “How are you,
Mr. So-and-So? How are you doing today?” He would
look directly in the man’s eyes. He established contact.
He would always reveal a kind of respect for this man and
what he was up to. I remember that, and watching the man’s
surprise that anyone would greet him by name and actually
look into his eyes. There was a wonderful moment in that
surprise. I remember watching that as a child, and then
later, anticipating that— and getting such pleasure
out of seeing my father doing that.
do that. They watch their parents cultivate respect in their
relationships. This giving of respect can feel almost invisible.
It is carried in those small gestures—not in great,
bold proclamations, but in small moments of surprising intimacy
and empathy. It is particularly important for people who
are “invisible” in society to experience this
kind of respect, because we generally don’t pay attention
to the work they do or the contributions they make.
In your book, you discuss different dimensions of respect.
How do those relate to family differences and money?
is one dimension I explore. When we are
respectful of others, we try to figure out a way to offer
them the knowledge, wisdom, and resources that they need
to be able to take care of themselves and navigate in the
world. One way to give respect is to share information;
to help the other person in a relationship or family develop
financial skills and knowledge, as well as the resources
needed to take part responsibly in that process. Imagine
a conversation about money where you are not withholding
information, not keeping secrets; instead, you are offering
up what you know about money, and the ways you know of to
take care of it. Respect is carried through the empowering
process. As you empower others, you are offering them respect.
dimension I examine is
. This involves communicating
honestly, listening to the interplay of ideas, developing
a discourse that’s meaningful and authentic, and finding
a way to move through misunderstandings—even through
rage and anger, towards reasoning and reconciliation; hanging
in there and trying to go back and renegotiate the conversation.
Those are crucial for conversations about money, which can
be so hard to talk about in families.
money, we all come carrying such baggage from our own families
of origin—how we were raised to attend to money, to
value it, to hoard or not hoard, splurge or not splurge.
Every family has a money curriculum that gets taught over
time and is passed on to the next generation. In couples,
each partner comes with a different curriculum. Respectful
relationships need to begin to expose the principles of
those curricula and to enter into a dialogue that expects
conflict and is able to move through it toward reconciliation.
This is not just one dialogue—it isn’t as if
you sit down at the kitchen table and say, “Let’s
get this settled”—it is a conversation that
is reiterated time and again. These are deeply held values
and it’s important to be able to discuss them over
time. People’s perspectives change and evolve and
the dialogues need to be able to address those developments.
is the quietest of all the dimensions of respect. When you
are respectful of another, you try to listen and be receptive
to what a person is really saying. It doesn’t necessarily
mean that you are always quiet. One can attend in a dynamic
and vigorous way. So much of what we take for communication
and talk doesn’t include genuine, undiluted listening.
Being completely present and engaged is what I call attention.
money conversations are such hard conversations, and because
people often get defensive and calculating, people tend
to talk over or past one another when discussing money,
instead of to one another in an engaged way. The respect
we hope for in a conversation— this quality of being
completely present—is really important with adolescents.
I suspect that most of the fighting between adolescents
and their parents is not about drugs, alcohol, or school,
but about money. Money stands for both independence and
dependence. To assert autonomy in our society, young people
need money—they need it to take a girl out to dinner,
to make a trip down to New York— but they also need
to be dependent on their parents. Parents often use money
to control and manipulate and keep their children dependent.
Navigating that treacherous relationship requires a great
deal of respect.
my children saying, “Mom, be quiet and listen to me.”
When I don’t listen with this quality of attention,
they experience me as talking over them, not really being
prepared to listen to them. But when I bring my full attention
and open myself up to whatever their point of view is—when
I put myself in their shoes empathically, to see what this
money thing might be for them, they feel I’m really
listening, a sign of respect.
of these are vital to respect in families—
giving kids, and others, the resources and knowledge to
act responsibly and to be accountable in reference to money;
: learning how to move past differences toward
understanding and reconciliation; and
having your receptive antennae up, being restrained, not
talking over others, trying to genuinely listen in a complete
way to where they’re coming from. Respect is carried
in all of that and might have a whole lot to do with figuring
out a way to put money in its rightful place in families.
Why do we so often not offer respect? Why does it seem so
hard to do?
To be respectful inside families is so much harder than
out in the world. It’s hard to sustain and nourish
respect day by day. When a three-year-old grabs her mother’s
cheek and turns the mother’s face toward her, so the
mother has no other option than to offer this kind of attention,
the child is demanding that the mother listen to her. Yet
the mother is so tired and exhausted at the end of the day.
The ways we know respect needs to be nourished get left
at the door when we walk into our homes. But we need to
be attentive to nourishing this respect—not taking
people for granted; finding ways to nurture, to look people
in the eyes, respond to them, and not talk over them. All
of that is extremely hard to do inside families. I experience
it constantly, especially when I return home from being
out on the road talking about my book on respect! It is
then that I experience how very hard it is to actually live
that message with my daughter who is 21 and my son who is
harder, too, in families because you care so much and so
passionately. The stakes are higher in doing this work of
respect in your own family. Also, because respect is carried
gesturally, people who love us know what we are really communicating,
even when it would not be visible to those who know us less
well. In a recent fiery conversation I had with my son,
he said, “I’m going to ask you to take that
smirk off your face.” No one else would have seen
this “smirk,” but there must have been something
in the curl of my lip or the crinkle of my eye that communicated
disrespect to him. He couldn’t have a serious conversation
with me because the expression on my face felt to him disrespectful.
All of this is part of the embodiment of respect that is
required in a family. It is much more rigorous than when
we’re out in the rest of the world. For all those
reasons, giving respect is that much harder to sustain in
by Pamela Gerloff
Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociologist, is Professor
of Education at Harvard University. Her works include
in Gilead: Journey of a Healer, I’ve Known Rivers:
Lives of Loss and Liberation, and The Good High School:
Portraits of Character and Culture
. Her most recent book,
Respect: An Exploration
(Perseus Books, 1999), is
an in-depth examination of the nature of respect as it occurs
in individual lives.
Lawrence-Lightfoot is the recipient of numerous awards,
including the prestigious MacArthur Prize and Harvard’s
George Ledlie Prize for research that “makes the most
valuable contribution to science and the benefit of humankind.”
She is currently chair of the board of the MacArthur Foundation.
she offers reflections on how respect applies to families
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