Despite writing about respectful parenting a lot, I realised I haven’t got a post outlining what I mean when I say respectful parenting. I’ve spoken about how respect isn’t a trend and what we do instead of punishment, but I thought I’d share what respectful parenting is and is not (in my opinion) and more of what it looks like here.
I’m no expert and don’t claim to be. This is purely what I have grown to believe children deserve and what I think is disrespectful to them. I hope it is helpful and resonates with you!
Respectful parenting is rooted in the truth that children are people too, and deserve to be treated as such. Respectful parenting is about unconditionally loving our children and parenting in ways that make them feel respected, supported, loved, heard and valued as individuals.
Respectful parenting is
Working WITH children. Parenting isn’t about working against children. It’s not you vs your children. Respectful parents work together with their kids. We don’t see parenting as a battle and we view children as the humans they are. Children are far more capable than they’re given credit for.
Oftentimes authoritarian parenting is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you treat children as people who cannot make choices, cannot be trusted and aren’t good people then they begin to believe that. They also never have the opportunities to practice, make decisions and regulate themselves. They feel incapable and ‘bad’ and worthy of punishment. That’s not the message I think any parent hopes to instil.
Working with children means involving them in our lives and choices. It means working together to come up with solutions when there is conflict. Parenting isn’t about doing something TO a child, but WITH children.
Empathising. Empathy is where respectful parenting begins. Putting ourselves in the shoes of the people we are living with and remembering how it felt to be a child is how we start to recognise the ways that traditional parenting hurts children. Empathising includes recognising that while we may not feel the same about those things that are really significant to children (say, they want their fruit cut a specific way), it matters to them.
Empathising with children means validating their experience and emotions. Empathy can look like saying:
“That sounds so hard!”
“That wasn’t what you were expecting”
“It’s so hard to wait sometimes, isn’t it?”
“I’m sorry, you didn’t want that to happen”
“That really must have felt upsetting/frustrating”
Validating emotions. Respectful parents validate their children’s emotions and do not belittle them or shame them for how they feel. We all struggle sometimes and children have less experience with emotional regulation. Saying “it’s okay” can seem really disrespectful to a child who is feeling and thinking this is totally NOT okay.
When coping with children’s big emotions, it’s important to say how normal and okay it is to feel sad, to cry, to be upset, to feel angry and frustrated and how best to deal with that. Shame and belittling doesn’t teach children emotional regulation.
“You can’t teach children to behave better by making them feel worse. When children feel better, they behave better.” -Pam Leo
Connecting. A deep connection with our children is another foundation for respectful parenting. If your children feel connected (and all that comes with that – the feeling of being valued and trusted) they value and trust you in return! Consequently, you find your words and thoughts and parenting in general has more impact.
Connection is key and is an ongoing process like any relationship. I’ve done an entire series with my friend Sara all about connected parenting if you think your relationship with your child needs more connection.
Acceptance. Respectful parenting is about accepting our children as who they are, not who you may think they should be or who you wish they were. Every child deserves to be accepted as who they are. Respectful parents accept their kids as the unique, awesome people they are.
Here’s to fearless kids, happy kids, loud kids, shy kids, kids with big ideas, challenging kids, messy kids, unique kids, kids full of questions, kids who speak up to injustices and untruths, honest kids, silly kids, all kids! Here’s to FREE kids! Free to be who they are!
I’m over the ‘Goldilocks’ mentality towards children – not too loud, not too quiet, not too silly, not too serious, not too academic, not too sporty, not too THEMSELVES essentially. I love this piece on parenting with radical acceptance.
Non-violent communication. Respectful parents practice non-violent communication. “Nonviolent Communication shows us a way of being very honest, without any criticism, insults, or put-downs, and without any intellectual diagnosis implying wrongness.” Marshall B. Rosenberg, PhD
Natural consequences. Natural consequences get confused all the time. Parents often assume the consequence that they have implemented is ‘natural’. But if an adult has imposed the consequence, it’s now a punishment.
A natural consequence is anything that happens naturally, without a parents interference. For example a child chooses not to wear a jumper and gets cold, or a child is rough with a toy and breaks it. Often adults take these consequences as reason to lecture, tell kids off, punish or say “I told you so”.
Kids already feel bad from making their mistake, just like us. They don’t need anything that adds more blame, shame, or pain than the child might experience naturally from their mistake.
Respectful parents show empathy and compassion for the child’s experiences with natural consequences. We might work together to help avoid these (say bringing a spare jumper just in case) and children are more likely to listen when they’re used to feeling respected and heard.
Honesty. My son Cameron wants to write about this. Respectful parents are honest with their children. I’ll say with ‘age appropriateness’ but I want to stress that that age appropriateness is so different to what the majority of society thinks. We may omit truths to help protect them from something. But children don’t need to be lied to about so much of what is considered normal in our society.
Honesty is something so highly prized by adults – from children and from each other. Yet often adults blankly lie to children and that’s never questioned? Respectful parents answer questions honestly. We tell them the truth in all things. This is one of many reasons we don’t do Santa, the Easter Bunny or the tooth fairy.
This includes breaking the fourth wall in parenting. This I think is crucial – being human and opening our children to understanding where we are coming from and letting them know you don’t have all the answers but you are aiming high!
Trust. Trusting children doesn’t come naturally to parents who were raised without trust. But not trusting children isn’t respectful. Children deserve for us to trust that they are inherently good people. I think it’s so sad that it seems to be a widely held idea that children are inherently out to do wrong and that without force and punishment they would do the wrong thing. This isn’t true for my children or any of the other children of my friends who are also respectfully parented.
Equality. Respectful parents believe their children are equal. We treat them not as inferior beings where we are the authority and instead treat them as equals. This includes being a friend. Yes, parenting and being a friend aren’t mutually exclusive. Respectful parents are also their children’s friends. I have a whole post about how I AM my child’s friend if you’d like to understand more!
Respecting bodily autonomy. Respectful parents respect their children’s bodily autonomy. This means our children choose what they wear, who they hug, what they eat and when, when they sleep and so on. It’s their body, their choice.
That doesn’t mean we don’t talk to them about said choices or make suggestions. But it means that we aren’t the authority over their bodies. Children make awesome choices when their bodily autonomy is respected.
Consensual. Consent is a big part of respectful parenting and it’s an ongoing conversation as we share our own consent too. This goes for all facets of life including their learning. Consensual living means that we discuss how our choices impact others and we let them know our own personal boundaries too.
Boundaries. Speaking of boundaries, they are a tricky topic with respectful parenting. Too often ‘boundaries’ and ‘limits’ are simply parent-pacified terms to help them feel good about using force, control and manipulation. This isn’t what boundaries are about with respectful parents.
Boundaries aren’t something to do TO children, like with parenting itself it’s about navigating things WITH our children. Life has enough boundaries naturally, we help discuss those organically and allow children to make their own minds up.
“When children are said to be testing boundaries they are generally fighting for autonomy. And when they experience autonomy it allows for them to trust their own sense and reason, but also in us. They trust that we are the helping hand, the people with a treasure of experience and knowledge that assists their learning and helps further their abilities.
Keeping children safe.> Respectful parenting doesn’t mean we don’t keep children safe. My favourite quote about this is “children should be kept as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible”.
Children don’t need parents telling them to constantly be careful and undermining their capabilities and autonomy. They do however have us organically there, helping them when asked, modelling and discussing choices and keeping them from harms way when necessary. Children don’t need punishment in order to be kept safe (we often hear that they’ll all run in front of cars if we don’t punish them!)
Respectful parenting is NOT
A technique. Respectful parenting isn’t a technique. It isn’t something you ‘try’ and see if it ‘works’. It isn’t a way to make children do what you otherwise already would have enforced. Obedience isn’t the goal here.
Saying you tried respectful parenting but it didn’t work is like saying you tried loving your child but it didn’t work so now you’re no longer going to show them love.
Perfection. Respectful parenting isn’t about perfection. We all make mistakes and as a parent, we won’t always get it right. I always say it’s not about perfection but intention. It’s our intention that matters. It’s the fact that we will admit and apologise for our mistakes and aim higher. It’s about always improving and having our children’s best interests in mind.
Permissive. Often people seem to think there’s only authoritarian, authoritative and permissive parenting but respectful parenting is none of the above. Respectful parents are still involved and help their children understand how what they do impacts others, we just don’t use punishment or force to do so!
“The dominant problem with parenting in our society isn’t permissiveness, but the fear of permissiveness. We’re so worried about spoiling kids that we often end up over-controlling them.” – Alfie Kohn
People think that in the absence of punishment and control that kids will ‘do whatever they want‘. It has so much more to do with how children are viewed than it does any reality.
Punishment! All of the following examples will be about punishments. Respectful parenting and punishment do not mix. You can’t respect someone while also intentionally choosing to make them feel worse as people anytime they make a mistake. We all make mistakes yet children tend to be held to far higher standards.
Spanking. Let’s start with the obvious, you can’t respectfully parent and physically hurt your children. Violence isn’t respectful and using force to punish a child is never going to make a child feel respected.
I was spanked as a child and shared what I learned from that. There’s so much evidence now that spanking is damaging and unnecessary. It’s 2017, it feels weird that there’s even a debate about this!
Removing belongings or ‘privileges’. Respectful parents don’t punish children by removing their belongings or freedoms. This isn’t our right and is just plain disrespectful.
All that taking away their things and freedom shows is that your support is conditional and you don’t respect them enough to work through things without punishment. When parents do this to children, they’re showing their own distrust and creating disconnection. Imagine if your partner did the same to you, how would you feel?
Respectful parents ensure their children know that their belongings, autonomy, space and freedoms are their own and that is not conditional.
Time outs. Time outs are often cited as a more respectful way to punish children. But let’s be clear, it’s still punitive, it’s still disconnecting and it’s still not respectful.
Time outs are forced abandonment. Time outs remove love and support. No child is spending that time genuinely thinking about what they have done wrong. They are left feeling unheard, misunderstood, powerless, frustrated, angry and unloved.
Like all punishment, they send the message that children are bad and that they deserve to feel bad for it. When parents banish an upset child to time out, they’re pushing them away at a time they need a parent the most. The saddest part is that sometimes children do calm down and become more ‘obedient’ – but the reasoning? The time out has triggered the universal childhood fear of abandonment. Evidence has shown that when used regularly, the experience of timeout can actually change the physical structure of the brain!
Shaming and blaming. Shaming children is prevalent in our society. So prevalent that it’s often overlooked as the damaging and disconnecting thing it is. “What is wrong with you?” “You’re being ridiculous” “Stop acting like a baby” are all examples of shame that I’m sure you’ve heard.
“Shame doesn’t diminish behaviour; it diminishes the self. This may, in turn, affect behaviour, but at what cost?” (source)
Shame has profoundly toxic effects on all humans, and children bear the brunt of this because it’s so widely used! Can you remember a time you were shamed? How did you feel? Shame makes children feel unworthy and yes they may try to rectify that feeling by obeying but that hit to their self-worth is long-lasting! More on the effects of shame here.
Respectful parents don’t shame their children, we speak to them with empathy and kindness.
Blaming can also be subtle for many new to non-violent communication. But it’s not uncommon to hear “you’re making me so angry!” or “well whose fault was that?”
Belittling children. Belittling children and their emotions and experience is another thing respectful parents try not to do. We empathise and validate their emotions.
We say “it’s okay to be angry/sad/upset/frustrated/etc. We let them know we hear them and value their experience. We don’t dismiss how they feel.
Threatening. When things aren’t going the way parents want, it can be tempting to use their power as an adult to threaten children. “If you keep this up, we are NOT going to X” “Keep going and we are going home” “If you keep being mean, no one will like you”.
Children internalise these threats and begin to both distrust your word if you don’t follow through. Or they distrust your love and connection when you do. Regardless, threats result in disconnection, distrust and a missed opportunity to work through whatever has you both struggling.
Obedience and control. It’s very common in our society to see parenting as synonymous with control. This includes forcing them to do things including forcing manners and sharing. Children do not need force in order to be good people.
All humans resist control. We don’t want to be made to feel we aren’t autonomous and that we don’t have a choice in the things that impact us. It’s a very powerful and important part of personhood. Children are no different. How often do you hear parents talk about their kids battling all the choices they make for them? Well it’s no wonder!
Arbitrary rules. Along the same vein and controlling. Life already has enough rules, we don’t need to artificially create them. As much as possible, respectful parents don’t create arbitrary rules for kids to follow. Like with everything, any rules we have are created as a family.
Pressure and expectations. Imposed success is not success.
Expectations, pressure, coercion, and manipulation of children to reach your idea of success will never result in them feeling true success. Success is subjective and completely altered by perception. We only feel success if it’s what we genuinely want. Not out of fear or shame or in an effort to be good enough for someone else. Imposed success is not success.
Respectful parents don’t pressure their kids and allow them to be who and what they want to be.
Comparison and competition. Respectful parents do not intentionally compare their children or encourage competition. This post about comparison and competition really explains it well.
“When we set children against one another in contests – from spelling bees to awards assemblies to science “fairs” (that are really contests), from dodge ball to honor rolls to prizes for the best painting or the most books read- we teach them to confuse excellence with winning, as if the only way to do something well is to outdo others. We encourage them to measure their own value in terms of how many people they’ve beaten, which is not exactly a path to mental health. We invite them to see their peers not as potential friends or collaborators but as obstacles to their own success…Finally, we lead children to regard whatever they’re doing as a means to an end: The point isn’t to paint or read or design a science experiment, but to win. The act of painting, reading, or designing is thereby devalued in the child’s mind.” – Alfie Kohn.
Rewarding. This is a tricky one for many people alongside over praising. Rewards are positive reinforcement – what’s wrong with that? But when you get down to it, they’re manipulation. They’re used to inauthentically manipulate an outcome and studies are now showing the damage this is doing to children and adults alike.
“Punishment and reward proceed from basically the same psychological model, one that conceives of motivation as nothing more than the manipulation of behaviour” – Alfie Kohn.
I’ve shared previously how I’m a recovering praiseaholic and don’t over praise my children as a result. Over praise is another form of ‘positive reinforcement’ and not respectful to the child’s development.
There is much research now that shows that children and adults alike are actually less successful at many tasks when they’re offered a reward for doing them or for doing them well. Alfie Kohn’s book Punished By Rewards is brilliantly thorough about this topic.
Children learn what they live. So I bet you can guess what a child who is parented respectfully learns, right? They learn to be all of the things that I explained is respectful parenting.
Respectful parenting creates children who are intrinsically motivated – to contribute, to improve as people, and to learn. I get the pleasure of watching this unfold firsthand with my own children and those around me who are raised similarly. They aren’t motivated by fear or rewards. Respectful parenting is mostly hard work in that we as parents have to unlearn much of what we were conditioned to believe as children and learn new habits.
But oh! the children raised this way are incredible! Watching autonomous, empowered children grow is so beautiful! The life we lead is far more harmonious and meaningful and the benefits compound (just as the negatives do with disrespectful parenting).