A Children’s Day wish – Adults should be open-minded, talk less and listen more

“Can you be more of a listener, rather than a talker?” said pediatric expert in adolescent medicine, Associate Professor Dr. Suriyadeo Tripathi, during an online interview with Thai PBS World about how adults should communicate with children in this era, in order to bridge the generation gap.

“Because, so far, we [adults] have been speaking a lot, be it in the house or at school. They are all one-way communications. If you don’t listen to children, how will you know what they are thinking?”

Although the pediatrician and many others have been advising adults to listen to youngsters a lot more, there are still many factors that are preventing Thailand’s younger generation from freely expressing their opinions, but who or what is to blame?

-“You are too young to understand”-

Like many Asian cultures, showing respect towards seniors, adults and elders is very important in Thai society, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, in a number of cases, how some Thai adults treat youngsters in return is questionable.

With the hierarchy that has been deeply ingrained in Thai society for centuries, people are ranked by their social class, wealth, age, gender, family lineage and position at work. Therefore, whoever has a higher “rank” will have more power and authority over others and can take absolute control over people who are beneath them.

The seniority system, a subset of all Thai hierarchies, gives adults the belief that they are superior to the younger generation and that children must respect adults, because adults have greater authority. Apparently, the seniority system means many adults feel entitled to patronise, belittle and, in the worst case, mistreat whoever is younger than them. Youngsters are still, however, expected to remain humble and maintain a soft and sweet attitude towards those “adults”.

Oftentimes, when you’re talking to older members of your family, or just adults in general, you will hear phrases such as “you’re new to the world”, “you’re too young to understand what I’m talking about” or they have “taken a hot bath before”, a common Thai saying that elders use to claim that they know more and have much more experience than the youngsters, who are often stereotyped as being immature, inexperienced and naive.

Therefore, young Thais are automatically expected to just “listen” to their elders, rather than being encouraged to speak up or to take part in a healthy conversation, in which anyone, regardless of age, can freely exchange their views without being judged.

-Obedience is the only answer-

Because of the power imbalance between age groups, another problem in Thai society is that you are either hua-on (literally soft head”, as in obedient) or hua-kaeng (literally hard head, as in obstinate) and no “in-the-middle”, regardless of circumstances. This is a social dilemma which many youngsters have had to deal with for so long.

As Thai society still values obedience, whoever disagrees or raises an opinion that is against the adults’ views are automatically labelled as “obstinate” or “argumentative”, or simply hua-kaeng. Subsequently, those who are hua-on are much preferred by most adults, because they will be a lot easier for them to deal with. So, whenever you’re confronted with thquestion of do you want to be hua-on or hua-kaeng, you will know straight away what kind of answer these elders want to hear.

A lot of this prevents the younger generation from having a voice, being able to freely express their views, and exercise their own critical thinking; with the latter being the biggest problem among Thai youth.

-Shouldn’t you be teaching elders first?-

Though this seems difficult to change, at least the seniority system which has been frustrating people for so long, has been questioned a lot more in recent years. This indicates that Thai youths are no longer passive and will not put up with anything that is unfair.

For example, the young anti-establishment protesters, who call themselves the “Bad Students”, responded to the elders with “Pooyai-Oei-Pooyai-Dee” (literally good adults), a direct rebuttal to the original “Dek-Oei-Dek-Dee” (literally good children) anthem, played on Thai Children’s Day since the 1950s. One of the “duties” listed by the young protesters is for adults to stop speaking sarcastically and condescendingly towards youngsters, as opposed to the original where children are expected to be sweet and polite.

Most recently, Thai rock band Bomb At Track, and famous rapper Milli, released their own version of “Dek-Oei-Dek-Dee”, questioning the elders’ idealistic expectations of the younger generation and how Thailand’s seniority system forces them to be silent. The hook says “Good boys, good girls, you must listen. Do not argue when being taught. Follow the words as being told. Do not question or else you will be punished.”

Another example was the online backlash over a poster, published by the Department of Cultural Promotion, advising children on how they should behave towards elders. Netizens’ comments, such as “What about how elders should behave while listening to children’s opinions?” and “Elders should also be respectful towards children and set a good example before preaching to them”, reflect the deep frustration of the younger generation over Thailand’s seniority system.

Image Credit: Department of Cultural Promotion

Similarly, the viral “Family Gathering” skit also challenges the seniority system, with its relatable storyline to many young Thais. This also sparked conversation on how the seniority system makes elders feel entitled to tease them, ask intrusive questions and make thoughtless, sometimes hurtful, comments, while expecting teens not to take it seriously.

-Dialogue is the key-

“Sometimes I feel that the younger generation does not have a safe space in which to say what they really need to say,” human rights lawyer Busayapa Srisompong told us at one point during an interview with us last year.

“The whole seniority issue within the household, within the community and within society, is almost like an abuse of power,where they are trying to control another life. We need to create a power-sharing [environment] where a 20-year-old and a 50-60 year old can walk into a room and safely discuss something.”

Similarly, Thai story teller Karn Hongthong, an expert in political and social issue storytelling, said he also feels that Thai adults in general have not done enough to listen to the opinion of the young.

“As an adult we must open our mind and listen to them,” he said, adding that, although the youngsters want to see changes in society and the way adults treat them, they still deserve to be loved and accepted for who they are.

“I believe that love can cure everything, we are adults, the government is the leader of this society and they must listen and learn to love our people, especially our children. This is the only way to get on together in the future.”

Having a healthy and supportive conversation is possibly the best way for adults to communicate with their children, which will help overcome the generation gap. This means we should all provide a safe space in which youngsters can express their opinions. At the same time, adults should still give them constructive and helpful advice for them to improve, but not in a forceful way.

“Imagine if, in the family, we could shape their thoughts, talk with reason and not emotion, not based on authority. All this, including in schools and in communities, will help create understanding, without them having to shout their opinion on the streets,” said Dr. Suriyadeo.

Keep in mind that children today grow up with social media, the Internet and smart technology. The exposure enables them to discover what is happening beyond their own environment and it shapes youngsters today into a more confident and expressive generation.

Therefore, as suggested by Dr. Suriyadeo, adults should be open-minded, be good listeners and most importantly, provide love, care and respect for their children.

“If we can create dialogue within families, education institutes and communities, it will lead to solutions. Every adult today should be open-minded.”

By Nad Bunnag, Thai PBS World


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