“I gave you a warning two minutes ago. Let’s go.” she says. He shakes his head, expressing he’d like to stay a little longer, “I’m going to count to three. One, two….”
“I’m thirsty. More water?”, he begs.
“Ok, but quickly”, she says signalling to the waitress, “I’d like a water”, he says to the waitress. “Aren’t you forgetting something? Water…..please!”, she says, correcting him.
He seems embarrassed but echoes “PLEASE” to the waitress.
Can you visualize the two people in this imaginary conversation? From the language you’d assume it’s a parent with a young child, and you’d probably be correct. After all, it would be impolite to speak to another adult like that. But, if the words we choose are disrespectful to an adult, the same words are equally hurtful to a child.
I wrote this post over a few days sitting in a sunny cafe and I couldn’t help but overhear numerous conversations between parents and children, playing out just like the one above. The families weren’t related, they didn’t even know each other, yet, they spoke the same language. Why? As children, we learnt stereotypical phrases, many of which were disrespectful. We accepted them as being normal, but if we don’t stop and reassess, history is destined to repeat itself.
One of a child’s basic emotional needs is to be treated with respect. It sits at the heart of a strong parent-child connection, which is fundamental to healthy emotional development. We’re capable of giving this to our children, but first, we need to recognize disrespectful behaviour and stamp it out before it jeopardizes our most precious relationships.
Let’s spring clean our subconscious minds
In Connection Parenting, parenting coach Pam Leo, identifies phrases adults automatically say to children when trying to teach manners. Prompting children to say please and thank you, insisting children apologize or forcing children share their toys are all examples of well-meaning, but disrespectful behaviours. They can make kids feel embarrassed, humiliated, ridiculed, threatened and hurt. When children feel this way, they naturally shift to a fight-flight response and when they are in that state learning is impossible – no matter how much we want to teach.
The best approach to extinguish parental disrespect is to commit to being proactive rather than reactive, by continually nourishing our parent-child connection and by adopting positive parenting practices. One piece of advice from Pam Leo, which has stuck with me is: “The level of cooperation parents get from their children is usually equal to the level of connection children feel with their parents.” Strengthening our connection takes more effort and patience when our children are young but it means we’ll have fewer battles when they’re older.
Here are five ways to break the cycle of disrespect
1. Walk the walk
Encourage children to use manners by modelling the behaviour rather than prompting them to say please and thank you. Kids learn more from what you do than what you say, so use it to your advantage – they’ll imitate your behaviour in their own time. But, it can be embarrassing when our kids don’t always say please and thank you, right? It feels like it may reflect poorly on our parenting abilities.
Firstly, don’t worry about it – easier said than done, I know. But seriously, as parents, one of the most important skills to master is to follow our own path and let judgements from other’s pass us by. You can’t please everyone and your top priority is your child’s long term emotional well-being. And, regardless, there is a super easy way to manage it – say thank you for your child. The person feels appreciated and you’ve modelled manners, setting a healthy example for your child.
2. Never force children to share
We may wish young children would share, but it’s an unrealistic expectation. Model sharing as often as you can and support your child on their journey – they’ll learn sharing can be a rewarding social experience but they need to get there on their own timeframe.
To model sharing toys specifically, Pam Leo suggests you can buy your own set of toys and keep them in a special place to share with your children or those who come to visit. But, give your child the freedom to decide if certain toys are off limits to others, never to be shared. Adults have this freedom and it’s fair for children to have it too. When friends come to visit, suggest “teddy can sleep in a special place” to avoid potential conflict.
3. Invite children into conversations
Are children invisible? Of course not. But, sometimes they may feel like they are when we talk about them as if they’re not there. It’s an easy pattern to fall into as we speak for them when they’re babies and continue doing so without realizing it.
Whenever you can, include children in conversations concerning them. Invite them to tell grandma how their trip to the zoo was or how they’re feeling about school. They may elect for you to explain on their behalf but opening the door for them to join in let’s them know they’re respected.
4. Forced affection is dangerous
We don’t see a lot of our families, so when we do I find myself suggesting to my son to “give your Aunty a kiss” or “hug Grandma good-bye”. I cringe when I hear myself say it as I know how it made me feel when I was young – uncomfortable, awkward and in the spotlight.
Demanding children give affection communicates other people have the right to decide about their bodies. It’s a dangerous precedent to set and it’s disrespectful. So, rather than prompting children to give affection, we can suggest adults offer it instead. Discussing this with family and friends will help adjust their expectations, protect their feelings and avoid potential disappointment.
If your child has a strong connection with the person offering affection, chances are they’ll open their arms enthusiastically for a big hug. But if they don’t, that’s ok too. We can step in and offer Grandma affection from us instead. Being flexible helps too – maybe kissing makes your child uncomfortable but they’d love a hug, a high-five or a handshake instead.
5. Never demand apologies
We were having fun playing on the bean bags, but I could see what was about to happen…milliseconds too late. My little man perfected his head butt and I had a blood nose for the first time in 39 years. I saw stars and ran to the bathroom to grab a wet face cloth to hold my throbbing nose. My little man followed me asking if I was ok. I gave him a hug, reassuring him I was fine. But he wanted to solve the problem. “I’ll get Daddy”, he said. He dashed outside, picked up a large river stone, held it to his ear and “called Daddy”. “Hello Dad. Come home, Mama sore nose. Bye.”
When children make mistakes they lose a little dignity. If we berate them or demand an apology, they lose even more and experience an emotional hurt. When they’re hurting, they can’t learn and that’s what mistakes are all about – learning, growing and improving. Instead of asking for an apology, help your child find a way to solve the problem. And as always, model apologizing, demonstrating it’s safe to admit you’ve done something wrong.
It’s all about connection
In the midst of the daily chaos of family life it seems there’s a never-ending list of do’s and don’ts when we’re striving to give our children all they need to grow into their full potential. It can feel impossible to remember, let alone put it all into action. Luckily, when you’re trying to break the cycle of disrespect and make your children feel like equals there are only two rules you need to remember.
Firstly, in any interaction, ask yourself whether your words will strengthen or weaken your connection with your child. If the answer is weaken, pause and think again. If the words have already been spoken, apologize to your child and move forward in a way that restores your connection.
And secondly, perform a mental check and ask yourself if you would speak to a close friend the way you’re about to speak to your child. If the answer is no, pause, take a deep breath and find new words.