The Problem with Respect

The foundation of most Chinese family relationships is 孝, or filial piety. It’s the Confucian virtue of  respecting your parents and elders. Parents are expected to direct, train, discipline, and provide for the next generation. Children, in turn, are expected to obey, honor, serve, and care for their parents.

Sounds good.

But is it really?

The Problem with Filial Piety

Let’s admit it—filial piety does not work in this day and age. For a moral code that is supposed to produce familial harmony, it too often leads to resentment, rebellion, and even estrangement.

That’s because filial piety is rooted in some problematic dynamics.

  1. Filial Piety is respect based on power.

Those with more power command respect from those with less: parents over children, men over women, those with rank over those without. For the child, compliance is required in matters as trivial as being told to put on a jacket in 90 degree weather, to something as weighty as deferring to your parents about who you’re allowed to marry.

But we live in a world that is moving away from ancient hierarchical structures toward more egalitarian relationships. Wives no longer walk five steps behind their husband. Children now are actually allowed to speak at the dinner table. The growing access to personal power means that kids nowadays will not submit to their parents “just because.” Parents can no longer use their positions of authority to control their kids without enduring constant power struggles.

  1. Filial piety is respect based on duty.

It’s behavior that is motivated by obligation. It’s the power of the “should.”

Many believe that having an internal sense of duty is good, but Alfie Kohn, in his book The Myth of the Spoiled Child, disagrees.

“Children who have introjected commands [internalized someone else’s rules or standards] to be polite or dutiful or helpful are not really moral agents in any meaningful sense. They haven’t chosen to do good because they don’t experience themselves as choosing. After all, ensuring that children internalize our values isn’t the same thing as helping them to develop their own.”

Children who are driven by duty may end up doing the right thing, but they do so at the risk of losing their own agency, sense of self, and internal moral compass. They become people who are good at following the rules, but unable to be thoughtfully examine and challenge unjust systems.

  1. Filial piety is respect based on idealism.

Everything goes smoothly as long as everyone plays their appropriate roles. Parents raise and provide for their children sacrificially, and in response children owe them honor and obedience.

Unfortunately, while filial piety may work well in a perfect family, I’m guessing none of us actually has one of those. In the real world, human relationships are complex. Both parents and children inevitably disappoint one another. Filial respect fails to recognize this dynamism and messiness. It relies on strict adherence to social expectations, but completely breaks down when someone breaks the rules.

  1. Filial piety is respect based on fear.

When duty fails to motivate children to obey, there’s always fear. Parents call for absolute compliance for fear of losing face and losing control. Children choose to comply out of fear of disapproval, punishment, and conflict. But in the words of Albert Camus, “Nothing is more despicable than respect based on fear.”

Fear does not create an environment that fosters healthy, flourishing families. It causes children to feel deeply insecure about their parents’ love. Even when children are well-behaved, they are never quite sure if their parents’ acceptance is unconditional or dependent on their acquiescence.

Filial piety, while cloaked in respectability and morality, proves itself to be highly questionable when it has been invoked by tiger parents around the world to coerce, shame, and instill fear in their children.

True Respect

True respect is not something that can be demanded. It’s not something that is owed simply because of title, position, or social obligation. It is not merely an expectation of outward compliance.

True respect is offered freely when we genuinely esteem and value another person. It is earned through love and trust. It is an expression of heartfelt devotion.

True respect is what parents need to show to their children before they can expect it from them.

As an untigering mom, I absolutely want respect in my family relationships. But I don’t want filial piety. I want something better, truer, and sounder—a mutual respect that is

characterized by shared power,

offered without coercion,

rooted in authenticity,

and fostered through unconditional love.

Now that’s the kind of foundation that’s worth building on.

 What does respect look like in your family?





  1. Eileen Wong

    August 21, 2017 at 8:22 pm

    Great article which resonates with the struggles in my extended family. Thank you!

    1. Iris

      August 21, 2017 at 11:00 pm

      Glad you resonated with it!

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