Respect For Elders: What Does It Mean For Your Family?

Older people have lots to offer in the way of life experience and well-earned wisdom.

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We've all heard the phrase 'respect your elders' before, but where does it come from?

Why does society expect it? And why is respect important?

Anyone who's ever had the infamous discussion with their child about whether homework should be banned has probably had at least a thought or two about whether the current generation of kids respects their elders. And while many children love spending time with grandparents, others need a little more encouragement to understand the value of having seniors in their lives.

Our children receive some seriously mixed messages about how they ought to be treating seniors. Everything from Bible verses about honoring your parents to media depicting seniors as scary has something to say on the subject, so what's the best way to bring respect for our elders into the modern home?

For more guidance on parenting, why not find advice on taking care of grandparents and navigating social media and self-esteem here on Kidadl?

The Importance Of Respect For Elders

Wanting children to respect their elders is a common parenting issue. From debates about whether elders deserve to be automatically respected for their age to how a child should address someone older than them, it's a hot topic. But why is respect so important?

Showing respect for elders in society is a way of showing that we value them. As senior members of the community with a lifetime's worth of wisdom to teach us, they have a lot to offer. Their firsthand experience of history gives them a unique perspective.

Sadly, modern culture doesn't always cast aging in the best light. Seniors often report feeling lonely and socially isolated, which has been proven to negatively affect their health. A combination of ageism and isolation can mean many seniors no longer feel valued by the society we live in. If younger people learn to respect and value seniors, it gives seniors more of a role to play in family life and in their community.

Learning to respect seniors can also help young people deal better with their own aging later in life. If they grow up respecting the wisdom and life experiences of the seniors in their community, it's much more likely that young people will see things to appreciate about aging themselves.

Respect is a two-way street though, and if an older person regularly acts unkindly towards or is rude to your child, your child has a right to expect better and to ask not to spend time around them.

Teaching Your Children Respect For Elders

Spending time with older loved ones is a great way for children to learn to value the seniors in their lives.

Now that we've established why respecting our elders is so important, it's time to convince your child it's actually a good idea.

Get The Basics Right: Because culture changes over time, what your child thinks of as expressing a preference or being confident may end up looking like rudeness to someone from another generation. Reminding your child about calling older adults Mr or Mrs. Lastname, or sir or ma'am depending on what's common where you live, can go a long way. So can discussing the difference between having your say and arguing back.

Show Them How To Do It: Children are hardwired to imitate the behavior of adults around them. It's part of the way they learn to interact with others, and it's a completely natural function of their developing brains. This means that when adults around them speak politely to them and respect them as people, children tend to naturally treat others with respect. Of course, every situation is different (and outside influences like school, friends, and media attitudes definitely play a role). However, the more you model behaviors like resolving conflict calmly and not speaking over others, the more your child will pick up on and imitate those behaviors with everyone, including senior citizens.

Brainstorm Ways They Can Be Kind: Showing respect to the senior citizens in your community can happen in lots of different ways. Holding open doors, giving up a seat, or offering to reach something down from a shelf are all ways of showing respect. Why not sit down with your child and think up a list of respectful behaviors to aim for and disrespectful ones to avoid?

Give Them A Chance To Practice: Studies have shown that younger generations have more positive attitudes towards seniors they know than towards the general idea of 'old people'. If your child doesn't spend much time around elders, they may not realize how many incredible life experiences they've had. The average senior has an amazing store of stories just waiting to come out when they find someone to listen. If children hear firsthand about how the senior gentleman next door fought in a war or the elderly lady at the senior living center rallied for civil rights, they're much more likely to feel natural respect for them. Once that happens, everything else should come much more easily.

Listen To Their Concerns: As we said earlier, the culture gap between generations can make it harder for younger people and seniors to understand each other. Especially now that most people in the US aren't living in multi-generational households, crossed wires can happen. If your child is saying that an older person has upset them, take their concerns seriously and discuss how things could have gone differently.

In many cultures and communities, different generations spend much more time together.

Respect For Elders In Different Cultures

There are many cultures around the world where people hold a deep respect for their elders and where younger people look to seniors in their community for life advice and a sense of history. Here are just a few of them:

Native American Nations: Although the hundreds of nations each have their own specific traditions, respect for the elderly and for what they can teach us is a common theme throughout. To be a tribal elder is an honor, and parents and grandparents consider it a duty to pass on the wisdom they have collected over their life to younger members of their community.

Traditional Christian Communities: From honoring your father and mother to the glories of gray hair, the Bible is full of references to taking your parents' advice and the need to respect your elders. Many Christian communities continue to encourage respecting older folks by encouraging children to volunteer at senior living centers and help out older people in the community.

Hawaii: In Hawaii, to be a community elder is to be held in high esteem. Older women are renowned for their lei-making skills and life experience and the title 'kupuna', meaning 'ancestor' or 'grandparent', is given when an elder is seen as a link with ancestral wisdom. Hawaii's public school system has formalized this by inviting elders into schools to share their knowledge with younger generations.

India: Hindi speakers will often add '-ji' to the end of an elder's name to show respect and reverence. In India, many families stay together with all the generations living under one roof. Respecting your elders is crucial, with older relatives being seen as great sources of advice. That also means that seniors expect younger family members to listen to them when making any kind of decision that affects the family. They play a major role in looking after children while the parents go to work as well.

East Asia And Confucianism: Across East Asian countries like China, Japan, and Korea, a history of Confucianism has meant that respect for seniors is still going strong. In Confucianism, respect for elders (also known as filial piety) is one of the central beliefs. Family elders are treated with reverence and senior living communities were practically unheard of until recently. Instead, it's expected that senior parents will start living with family when they are no longer able to cope with independent living. In Japan, the suffix '-san' is often added to the end of names to show respect for an older person, while in China, people will queue for hours at train stations and airports to visit elderly relatives at the Spring Festival.

Greece: Greeks see aging as moving closer to God. They even have a special word, 'philotimo', to describe children being respectful to their elders. This might explain why residents on the Greek island of Ikaria are four times more likely to live to 90 than the average American!

France: In 2004, the French made it a legal requirement to stay in touch with elderly relatives. Even the French law is on the side of respect for the elderly.

If you found this article helpful, then why not take a look at teaching table manners for kids or our guide to taking handling grandparents disrespecting parents?


Written By

Kidadl Team


The Kidadl Team is made up of people from different walks of life, from different families and backgrounds, each with unique experiences and nuggets of wisdom to share with you. From lino cutting to surfing to children’s mental health, their hobbies and interests range far and wide. They are passionate about turning your everyday moments into memories and bringing you inspiring ideas to have fun with your family.

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