I’m sure you have days where you wish that your children would just do what you told them. No fuss. No complaints or delays. Just do it. And when they don’t do it, you might feel disrespected, as if it is your children’s job to obey you. And yet, if your partner treated you that way – expecting compliance for everything he or she wanted in the moment – what would you be feeling? My hunch is that you might feel disrespected. As a culture we struggle to distinguish respect and obedience.
Obedience means following the directions of an authority figure. The motivation is often based on fear. The result is compliance.
Respect means showing consideration for the rights, feelings, and actions of another, holding the other person in high regard. The motivation is high regard for the other person, whether he or she is an authority figure or not. The result is cooperation. When a respectful relationship is built, the adult has influence and most young people will cooperate.
Rudolf Dreikurs, in his book Social Equality: the Challenge of Today defines mutual respect as “respect for the dignity of others and respect for oneself. The principle is expressed in a combination of firmness and kindness. Firmness implies self-respect; kindness, respect for others.”
Part of the challenge is that our culture is changing. Fifty years ago when Dad told Mom to do something, she did it. The children watched that so when Mom told them what to do, they did it. Now, in many families, if Dad were just to tell Mom what to do, she might not do it because she expects to be treated with equal dignity and respect. The modeling that children see is different – and they expect to have their voices heard, as well. (This does not mean that parents need to do everything a child wants. Adults are still the leaders of their families.)
Of course, it is not helpful when children don’t do what adults ask them to do. On the other hand, we do not want them to always obey people who are bigger or more powerful than they are. They need to say “no” to bullies, unwanted sexual advances and to offers that compromise their values. When we listen to our children and teach them to see the bigger picture, it also teaches them compassion, self-respect, and the ability to advocate for they believe in.
Teaching respect at home
- Teach and model self-regulation skills Parenting is challenging. Most parents find themselves feeling tired, angry, or really frustrated some of the time. As uncomfortable as those moments are, they are also great teaching opportunities. “I am feeling really angry right now and I’m going to go cool off before we solve this problem.” Then take a breath, walk away until you are feeling better and come back to solve the problem.
- Model self-respect When you and your family have established routines or guidelines, your job is to calmly and firmly follow through. (This is not easy, see ‘paying attention to your mirror neurons’ below.)
- Model and expect respect for others This includes things like saying, “Please” and “Thank you” or, “In our house we don’t call each other names.”
- Pay attention to your mirror neurons. When our children are upset, disappointed, or angry, we feel some of those feelings because we are connected. Often our impulse is to solve the problem so that they and we feel better. When we manage or own feelings, listen and stay calm, our children learn self-regulation and take more responsibility for themselves.
- Connect before correcting Validate your child’s feelings before you ask for a change. “It looks like you are disappointed because really want to continue this game, and it is time for dinner now.”