Respectful Parenting – Not Just for Kids

Part One

Most parents are sensitive about their parenting. How they are doing as parents, how their kids are turning out…It is as difficult to talk about as politics. People disagree passionately about it. What to allow kids, and when: When do they get to decide for themselves when to wear a jacket? When do we let them walk to a friend’s by themselves? When can they have a phone? When can they have a sleepover? There are increasing numbers of self-help books telling us what will give our kids what we all ultimately want for them:  happiness, the ability to support themselves, and good people in their lives.

Allow me to first say that because my children are still young (elementary school age), I have some doubt about my authority on this subject. Until my children have launched successfully into adulthood, I cannot say with complete confidence that I’m doing things right with them. That being said, I feel strongly about Respectful Parenting, which I am about to describe, and believe from my years as a therapist that if we used this approach with ourselves and others, we’d all do a lot better.

If more people used Respectful Parenting, not just with their children, but in their close relationships, and in their inner dialogue with themselves, we’d have better relationships. We’d have better self-confidence.  We’d acknowledge mistakes and learn from them faster. We’d be able to take better care of each other instead of desperately protecting our own egos.

What I am calling Respectful Parenting has been described many ways by many different people. One example would be the “consultant parent” of Foster and Cline’s Parenting with Love and Logic. As the consultant parent, you assist your child to think through their problems and form solutions themselves, with “consultation” from a parent, who believes they are capable of doing so but, even more importantly, believes they will get better in decision-making with practice.

Then when the stakes are higher, and there are higher prices to pay for their decisions, such as riding in a car with someone who has been drinking or deciding when to have sex or how far to go, you have experienced decision-makers who have developed skills for decision-making, such as learning from mistakes, trusting conscience and instincts. I believe in this – and more.

I think we need to disagree with people (young or old) in such a way that allows them the ability to see our point of view – even agree with us – while still preserving their dignity.  Instead, many people prefer to, in tennis terms, “hit a winner,” in which you make a point so poignant and grand that the other person has to be impressed with your wisdom, hang their head, and admit that you are right. Admit. Admit is something we do when we have done something we shouldn’t have, and the word is laden with shame. Shouldn’t is another problem word. All this shame is bad for us, and for our kids.

Shame There is a place for shame. When you’ve wronged another, and realize the extent of what you’ve done and its impact, you might feel shame. It’s fitting for the context. You might then feel motivated by that shame to try and make it right, if possible, through an apology, or an offer to fix the situation. When you are ashamed, the sincerity of your feelings can be appreciated by the wronged person, who is better able to move on when you have validated their experience by expressing remorse. Shame also motivates us to do better.

We’ve all had the experience of seeing someone “misbehave” and not feel shame. It worries us. I think on some level we know that no remorse means no change. Feeling shame makes us uncomfortable enough to consider being different.  For some, wrongdoing leads to consequences that lead to the discomfort that motivates change.  That worries us, too, though less so if there is indeed some regret from the misbehavior.

However, shame can be damaging. It is overused by many parents as a deterrent, or simply out of frustration or fear about how our kids are going to turn out. For example, the parent who gets angry at the child who has an accident in their bed might express frustration that leads to the child feeling shame, all because the parent is worried that his child is going to wet the bed for years to come and be deprived of things such as sleepovers. Or maybe he is just frustrated because he is sleep-deprived and wants this to be over with already. Instead of recognizing and processing these feelings of frustration and fear, so he can handle the child respectfully, shaming the child results.

Shaming occurs in lots of ways. A few ways include:

1.) Yelling – In yelling, I am not giving you the respect of talking with you and making change together. By yelling, I establish a subtle hierarchy that you are below me. If you don’t believe me, then consider how you would feel if a child or an employee yelled at you. You feel your authority is disrespected. Meanwhile yelling is an abuse of authority.

Further, if you have kids, then you must have noticed that after you’ve stated what you want or need several times pleasantly, or at least calmly, when you finally yell, kids never think to themselves “Well, I didn’t listen when she first said it.” Instead, they are more focused on the fact that they are being yelled at – and sometimes don’t even know why, or feel they deserve it. Truly, your message is much louder by speaking it directly and calmly, or backing it up with consequences.

I yell sometimes. I’m trying not to. I can be just as effective not yelling. Yelling might be a quicker route to being taken seriously sometimes, but the risks outweigh the benefits. And if we are honest with ourselves, yelling is mostly an expression of frustration resulting from lack of self-control, rather than being an actual parenting strategy.

The Remedy: Just say it. Say what you need to say. Without yelling. Or if you have said it, and it’s not working, you need to move to warning of consequences then to executing consequences. Also without yelling. That is all. Yes, it’s hard. But the right thing is not always easy to do.

2.) Confronting Loudly or Bluntly In Front of Others – Sometimes we are trying to show other parents that we care about our kids enough to correct them. Sometimes we ourselves are embarrassed by our kids’ behavior and we might feel that publicly correcting them separates us from their behavior (“See? I don’t approve of this either!”). Or sometimes we are just not taking the time to do it in a more dignified way.

Are you starting to see the parallels with how we might treat people who are not children?

It’s uncomfortable when a spouse publicly points our a partner’s flaws or how they are wrong about something. It’s embarrassing for those listening to what should be a private conversation and for the one being disagreed with so openly. Yelling, too, can be scary, and make someone feel like you don’t feel they are worth a conversation. I acknowledge that yelling often occurs when we feel we aren’t being heard in other, more respectful ways. For that, see the Notebook entry titled The Key to Communication: Content vs. Process.

The Remedy: Call them over, or go over to them, and speak to them privately about their behavior. We might have to warn them of a potential consequence. And we might have to decide that it’s time to leave that situation for that day (“I think maybe we’ve had enough of the park for today”). Or you learn to catch your child’s eye across the table or a room, and give them a signal that says “You’re on the wrong path, buddy.” Most people raised in the 70s and earlier remember a “look” their parents gave them.

With our spouses or a dear friend, we might decide that while it’s important to tell them what we observe, now isn’t the time. In the car on the way home from the party, or even the next day, would be better than publicly correcting them. Or just like with our child, we find a way to tell them more discreetly in the moment.

3.) Being Unwilling to Explain – Good teachers will tell you that, though answering countless questions from children can be mentally exhausting, it’s worth the time and effort. Kids who ask questions are already starting in this world with some confidence and self-protection. They have a healthy skepticism about things initially, until they decide where it fits in their world. In a phrase, they have a mind of their own. That is a very good thing. It is what will protect them from trying drugs or wearing revealing clothes “because everyone else is.”

Yes, it can be frustrating when a child challenges the wisdom and rules of the adults and adults generally don’t take kindly to kids who are “too big for their britches.” But in Respectful Parenting, you can talk to kids about trusting someone’s authority, that there is a time for questioning status quo, and that while everyone has a voice, there are tactful ways to pose questions.

If our reasoning for something cannot be understood by a child, sometimes there isn’t a lot of wisdom in it. Kids have a refreshingly clear perspective on things. Yes, indeed, some things are more complicated and it will be some time before the child will have the ability to see the many shades of gray that complicate life.  However, helping them see the logic behind the rules often will help them trust your authority. So occasionally, when you have to ask for their trust on something they don’t understand and expect them to follow along based on that trust, you might find a more cooperative child who says to themselves on some level, “Well, they usually know what they are talking about.”

The Remedy: Explain things. Acknowledge that there are several ways to do things, but there is a rationale for your way that makes sense to you. Let them know that it is okay if they don’t agree (though as the parent, you are the one making the rules), and that they might do things differently when they are in charge. Allow yourself to be persuaded sometimes by your child to do things differently. Praise them for making a good case. Show them that a good leader listens to everyone and considers as many sides as possible before making a decision.

4.) Being Unwilling to Admit Mistakes – One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is the ability to own a mistake, try and make it right, and develop a better wisdom for the future. The most powerful way to give them this gift is to model it.

Parents are often afraid that being wrong in front of their kids will diminish their kids respect for them. This is true if the culture in your family is that being wrong is shameful. If you disrespect someone for being wrong, then when you are wrong, you might get some of that disrespect back. Suppose you are using Respectful Parenting and when you make a mistake, there is disrespect that you haven’t modeled. (Once, when I was wrong about something, my daughter mocked “Ha, Haaa!”) Well, that is another opportunity to teach and guide your kids: This is how we respond to someone who has made a mistake. Of course, what you say will mean nothing if you aren’t modeling it.  Kids will merely learn that adults are always to be regarded as right, even when they are wrong, and as kids, their opinions don’t count for much. So how will that look when they are older and trying to figure out life on their own, trying not to look like they are making mistakes (while probably making them daily, like the rest of us)?

I can tell you how it looks…

They come to therapy, not trusting themselves, not hearing their instincts, afraid to ask for help, and exhibiting their shame and frustration with themselves in all kinds of ways, including procrastination, relationship problems, anxiety symptoms, and substance abuse, to name a few.

The Remedy: Let your kids be right. Let them see that you learn from them. When you are wrong (you yell at one kid for something that her brother did), apologize sincerely, and tell her how you could have done that differently (“Next time I’ll ask first before I assume”).  Expect the respect from them that you give them.  Expect them to give each other that same respect. Demonstrate it between co-parents. Acknowledge that the other parent had a good idea and it changed your mind. Or that you disagreed about something, but were both coming from a good place and want the same things. Talk about how we make things right, and learn from mistakes, not “You should know better,” but “Hey, now we know, don’t we? Let’s remember that for next time.” This is also a good time to point out to them, if they didn’t listen to us, that we have a rationale behind our rules and suggestions and that they might use listening from and learning from others in their decision-making.

Part Two will discuss how Respectful Parenting can be useful in our self-talk and in our relationships.