Some of the top parenting related Google searches start with “how to get your kids to ________.” Fill in the blank: how to get your kids to eat, how to get your kids to sleep, how to get your kids to stop hitting each other, you name it. And really high up there on the list is “how to get your kids to respect you.”
Respect. We can’t deny its importance. But are we going about it the wrong way? The first thing that pops out to me about this search phrase is that it’s all backwards. Should we need to “get” our kids to respect us? Yes, it’s commonly said that children should respect their parents and elders, but there’s a huge difference between respect given out of obligation, and respect given willingly and of one’s own initiative.
So how do we earn that respect? How do we create a relationship with our children that allows respect to bloom on its own, without demands? I am reminded of that famous Aretha Franklin song. (Got it stuck in your head, didn’t I?) After a lot of thought, I’ve decided that, to me, respect means listening and responding with honesty, having appropriate expectations, and without exploiting emotions. Let’s break that down…
Listening to the attempts at communication from our children is the first part of respect. I’ve seen so many parents so lost in their own thought, or in conversation with a friend, that they don’t hear their own child practically begging for help. I’ve done it myself more times than I would like to admit.
Now when I say listening, that includes literally listening to their words and, in the case of infants, their cries and subtle cues. But it also includes a deeper type of listening. When a child is acting out, throwing a tantrum or stubbornly refusing to follow house rules, that behaviour is something to listen to. Most, if not all, out of the ordinary behaviour can be seen as a cry for help. She’s tired, he needs more one-on-one attention, she needs a change in environment, he’s frustrated about a toy that’s out of reach. Or maybe she’s overwhelmed by some strong emotions that she doesn’t yet know how to express.
In many ways, I think that pregnancy is a training ground for having kids. One of those ways is that the mother grows through some intense hormonal changes that sometimes cause tears. Sometimes, she knows why she’s upset and it’s a perfectly logical reason, but she’s too upset to find the words to express it to anyone else. Other times, she just starts bawling and doesn’t even know the reason herself. All of this is preparation to empathize with a crying child. Hand in hand with this is the training of the father, who stands by the mom throughout all these hormonal changes. He learns how to comfort a person without knowing the reason for their tears.
… and responding
Once you’ve heard the problem, it’s time to respond. Responding with respect means addressing needs and accepting feelings, but it doesn’t have to mean “give them whatever they want.” Sometimes the response is just to enforce the rules, so that the child feels that you really are able to handle his craziness and that he is safe in your care. Let’s say Pippin is upset because she doesn’t want to go home from the park. A good response would be to acknowledge her feelings and then firmly state what we’re going to do. “You’re so upset! You want to stay and play with all your friends. All your friends have to go home now and so do we. It’s ok to be sad that you have to leave your friends. We’re going to get in the car seat now.”
… with honesty,
I don’t understand how parents can lie to their kids and then be surprised when that child grows up lying to them. There is always an age appropriate way to explain a concept to children. I believe that if they’re old enough to ask, they’re old enough to be answered. Children understand more than we give them credit for.
Responding with honesty also includes not putting on a show. When a child is crying, she is trying to tell you something. I personally don’t think it makes any sense to then start smiling, laughing, and singing jokes in an attempt to distract her from her sadness. First of all, it doesn’t address the root problem, and secondly, I believe children can tell when parents are acting. You’re not really that happy. No one is that happy.
… having appropriate expectations,
Respect includes not setting the bar too high (expecting a child to be able to handle adult-level situations; for example, an entire wedding that starts after their bedtime, where they’re expected to be on their very best behaviour), nor setting it too low (treating the child as completely helpless and unable to understand simple sentences). Janet Lansbury wrote in her book, Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting:
“One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned since becoming a mom — reinforced by observing hundreds of other parents and babies interact — is that there is a self-fulfilling prophecy to the way we view our babies: If we believe them to be helpless, dependent, needy (albeit lovely) creatures, their behavior will confirm those beliefs. Alternatively, if we see our infants as capable, intelligent, responsive people ready to participate in life, initiate activity, receive and return our efforts to communicate with them, then we find that they are all of those things.”
… and without exploiting emotions.
I find a lot of depth and meaning in Arabic linguistics, and it influences my thoughts on various topics. In Arabic, the word taskheer means subjugation, to control or manipulate someone. From the same root letters is the verb sakhira, which means to ridicule or mock someone. Because of this, whenever I see someone being mocked and humiliated, I see it as an attempt to control that person. The one being ridiculed starts to feel small, inadequate, full of self-doubt, while the one doing the mocking gains strength, feels more confident, gets the upper hand.
So when I see photos of crying children with captions mentioning the latest (outwardly) illogical reason for a tantrum, I can’t help but think, why didn’t that parent comfort his child instead of posting his vulnerable moment on the Internet? What did the parent gain by sharing this image? If I was in the child’s shoes, I would be more than a little confused as to why the person whose shoulder I desperately want to cry on is, instead, pulling out a cell phone camera and taking my photo.
When I see photos of toddlers and babies straining to eliminate in their diapers, I can’t help but think, why would a parent share a photo of her child during such a private moment? Adults use the toilet behind a closed door for a reason. These kids literally have no choice but to do it in public, and they trust us to not laugh at them. Most toddlers after a certain age will scurry off and hide in a corner while eliminating. They innately know that it’s private. If we wouldn’t share our own face while using the bathroom, why our kids? What is there to gain?
When we respond to a child’s communication, it should be in accordance with the situation. The appropriate response to crying is not laughter. The appropriate response to seeking privacy is not making things public.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that when I say I want to be respected, what I actually mean is that I want to be valued as a person. I want my opinions to be given weight. I want my feelings to be acknowledged. I don’t want you to hold all the same beliefs as I do, but I want you to defend my right to hold those beliefs when they’re being challenged. I want to know without an ounce of doubt that you will never betray my trust and divulge my secrets, no matter how insignificant you may feel those secrets are.
Our kids deserve that same level of respect. We have to give to receive. It’s so easy to forget that, yet so important not to.