One question that I have come across a few times, which has really helped me to understand and gage my views on this topic is: ‘would you say/do that to an adult?’
This question helps me understand and query why we expect certain things from, or behave a certain way towards children, yet we wouldn’t have those same expectations or attitude towards another adult. It enables us to look at it on a simple level and realise that children deserve a lot more respect and autonomy than we are led to believe.
As humans we all want to feel heard, loved and valued; and this is where respect comes in. Why is it that as adults we expect to be treated with respect by other adults and even more so by children, yet we don’t show the same respect back to children? Or even feel that they deserve it? Are adults more important or superior to children, just because children cannot yet communicate to the same level or advocate for themselves? Or, because adults have had more life experience and understanding? Surely, children should be viewed as even more precious because of their vulnerability and their need for guidance in their journey to adulthood. How often have you heard the phrase ‘because I say so’ or ‘because I am the adult’? What does that even mean? Why does an adult deserve more respect? And how will children even learn to respect others if they are not modelled it?
Any parent that loves their child (no matter what their parenting style is) wants their child to grow up to be a respectful adult; this is something we value as humans. We all have the common aim to raise our children to be the best they can be… yet we don’t stop to think that the best way children learn to be respectful and ‘decent’ to others is from how they are treated themselves. Whether a child is physically abused, emotionally abused, grows up with strict and authoritative parents, or is merely dismissed every time they express themselves… they will still feel unheard, unseen and unvalued. They will question their self-worth. When an adult does not respect a child, the message that they are sending that child is ‘you are unworthy of respect (my time)’ and ‘what you are feeling is wrong’. Of course people may think how can you compare a child being dismissed by their parents to one that is abused… while the impact may not be quite the same, that child will still get the same message (that who they are is not worthy of love and respect), just at different levels of severity. That child will still develop psychological wounds from those feelings. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the intentions are of the parents, children can’t understand and think ‘but my mum and dad love me so I shouldn’t feel this way’, it matters how they are made to FEEL in that moment when they need validation and support.
If a child feels worthless, unvalued and like their opinions or feelings don’t matter, then the child will also learn to treat others in the same way that they have been treated themselves. They will either grow up feeling angry and lacking respect for others, or being respectful out of fear (which could result in them being controlled, manipulated and taken advantage of). I personally don’t want my children to respect the authority just because that is how society views it should be, or out of fear. What if the authority is wrong? What if the authority is taking advantage of them? After all, we live in a system where the majority of the authority and the state, controls, manipulates, brain washes and exploits. When my children become adults, I want them to WANT TO respect people because ALL humans deserve respect (even if that looks like placing boundaries in order to protect themselves). I don’t want them to show respect to someone when they don’t truly feel like it, just out of fear or because they are expected to. Equally, I want them to stand up to the authority that doesn’t treat others with respect and to question it. I also want them to stand and speak up for people who don’t have their own voice and who cannot be heard. If I want them to be this way as adults, they need to experience this as children… because how they learn to be as children will translate into how they are as adults. I also want them to be this way during their CHILDHOOD, not just when they reach adulthood… to be able to say no as children if they are ever in a situation of being exploited or abused by an adult. If they learn to always respect adults out of fear, they are more susceptible and vulnerable to being abused and exploited.
On the other hand, if a child is parented by adults who are honest, open, and treat them with compassion, kindness and respect, make them feel heard and validate their feelings (whether or not the parent understands them), then that child will feel valued, respected and an equal member of the family and the wider community. They will learn to act with integrity and not to people please. They will learn self-love and self-respect, and to establish healthy boundaries with other people.
Even as adults we all have different stories; everything impacts each person differently, what one person may find upsetting another may not, and vice versa. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It doesn’t matter how much we may think the child’s response or feelings are ‘silly’ or that they don’t make sense to us… what matters is what THEY FEEL and the story that they attach to that feeling depending on how the parent responds.
A lot of parents confuse respect with allowing children to do what they want. They are afraid that if they ‘let their guard down’ and treat their children with respect and equality, then the child will in turn lose respect for them; that the child will ‘misbehave’, act ‘spoilt’ or be ‘naughty’. This is far from the truth! A child who feels valued and respected will also learn to value and respect their parents, not be forced into it.
It doesn’t mean that there are no rules. Some people of the positive parenting persuasion take things too far and allow their kids to basically do whatever they want. To literally make all of their own choices. They see “respect” as avoiding confrontation or anything that might make their child upset. But there is nothing respectful about having no boundaries. Part of being a parent is giving kids structure in the form of rules and expectations and understanding that those things are beneficial to them. It’s how we set up those rules and enforce them that makes the difference – ScaryMommy. It’s also then responding with empathy and validation when they are upset about those rules and boundaries that we set, which teaches children that while they may not always get what they want, they will always have their parent’s respect, love and compassion for how that makes them feel.
Furthermore, ‘children are punished for being human. Children are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes, yet we adults have them all the time! We think if we don’t nip it in the bud, it will escalate and we will lose control. Let go of that unfounded fear and give your child permission to be human. We all have days like that. None of us are perfect, and we must stop holding our children to a higher standard of perfection than we can attain ourselves. All of the punishments you could throw at them will not stamp out their humanity, for to err is human, and we all do it sometimes’ – Rebecca Eanes
Yes, it is our JOB as parents and adults to teach and guide children… AND that is all the more reason for us to respect their autonomy and not see them as below us.
‘The healthiest type of parent-child relationship is one of mutual responsiveness’ – Kochanska. Admitting mistakes is part of mutual respect – Racheous.
The more we do this, the more children are open to our guidance… otherwise it just becomes background noise! If we want our children to learn to respect others, they will learn from how we treat them, not from what we say.