Respectful Parenting. I use that term a lot! It feels like the most accurate way to describe what we do. The overarching theme is a respect for children, and treating them with the same importance and positive regard as I would want to be treated.
Some of these terms are hard to define though, and there’s lots of them! Peaceful parenting, attachment parenting, conscious parenting, positive parenting, the list goes on. It’s hard sometimes when talking to other people, even if they say they believe in respectful parenting, to know if they really hold the same beliefs as you.
I have had so called ‘respectful parents’ tell me that they believe they have the right to decide how their child gets their hair cut, or to impose arbitrary limits, or that ‘I am the parent and the authority in my home’. I’ve even had people say that hitting children is respectful because they ‘need to learn right from wrong’. Clearly, there’s been a misunderstanding here!
So, I thought it was time I explained exactly what I mean when I use the term ‘respectful parenting’. I hope this clears it up!
“Connection, Communication, and Cooperation. These three elements, when interwoven with threads of understanding, respect, and love, are what combine to create the beautiful tapestry of a peaceful, happy home.”
― L.R. Knost
Respectful Parenting Is…
Treating children like people
The most important aspect of respectful parenting to me is treating children like people. Whole people from the moment they are born, deserving of the same respect as anyone else. Unfortunately, children are not often treated that way in our society. They are seen as inferior and are frequently discriminated against. Respecting children means not treating them in ways that would be offensive if they were an adult. Yes, they need our care, guidance, and protection, but that can always be done respectfully.
Mainstream parenting seems to focus on ways to train children to act how we want them to act. The goal seems to be ‘good’ children who follow the rules and obey their parents. Respectful parenting is about valuing that children are individuals with their own needs and desires, and working together to find ways to make sure everyone’s needs are met. When a disagreement occurs we work together to problem solve and find a solution that everyone is happy with, rather than forcefully imposing our will in order to get them to do what we want.
Respectful parenting means not doing something to our children against their will, or making choices for them that they do not agree to. Just as we would not do this to an adult. Of course there may be some cases where this unfortunately has to happen in order to properly care for them (such as medical procedures for example) but we would always endeavour to explain, empathise, and help them be as comfortable as possible in these circumstances. In general daily life though, it is not often necessary to do anything to our children without consent. They are much more capable than we give them credit for!
Freedom is a right that everyone deserves. You don’t earn it with age. Respectful parenting means supporting our children’s freedom as much as possible. Allowing them the time and space to direct their own life. There is no need for unnecessary restrictions. In our home we don’t have any set ‘rules’. As long as they’re not hurting anyone, then the kids make their own decisions with our support and guidance. Whether it be what time they go to bed, what they eat, or if they decide to cover themselves in paint from head to toe. As long as it’s not knowingly negatively affecting others, then they are free to experiment with making decisions and learning from them, just as I am.
In a respectful environment, adults are not more powerful than children. Adults have more responsibilities than children, but we don’t take that to mean we must exert authority over them. Therefore we do not use coercive methods such as punishment, rewards, shame, blame, or bribery as a means of influencing behaviour. We recognise that children are inherently good, and we don’t need to train the bad out of them, just trust they will grow up to be their awesome selves. Instead of forcing behaviour, model it! If you want respectful children, respect them. If you want children who listen to you, listen to them. If you want children who are kind, be kind to them.
I would hope this is obvious to most people, but evidently not. Children have the right to be in control of their own bodies. Adults don’t get to make those decisions. From circumscision, to ear piercing, to hair cuts…no one else has a say except the person whose body is being altered or used! Respectful parents respect their children’s bodily autonomy. Children can choose the clothes they wear, the way they have their hair, whether or not they would like to kiss a relative goodbye, or anything else that relates to their body. It is disrespectful to make these decisions for them without their consent.
Respectful parenting means empathising with your children A LOT. Instead of trying to fix problems, minimise feelings, distract, control, restrict, or any other parenting ‘techniques’, we just empathise. All children really want is to be heard and understood. When they feel accepted and supported they are so capable of solving any problem. The more you empathise and REALLY listen to them and understand them, the more confident they feel in themselves, and the closer your relationship becomes in the process. And when you have that connection, everything is a whole lot easier to work out.
Respecting their choices
Children’s choices are respected, even if they are different from our own, or society’s vision of ‘normal’. And even if you can foresee the negative consequences. We allow children to learn from natural consequences rather than artificially imposed ones. We trust their capabilities! You won’t hear us saying ‘be careful!’ or ‘you’ll get hurt!’
The focus is not on rules and behaviour and how well children live up to our standards, but on relationships. Respectful parenting is based on connection. It is about deep respectful relationships that will last a lifetime. That’s much more important than nitpicking about behaviour. When problems arise, we seek to connect with our children instead of control them.
I can no longer separate parenting and education in my mind. Just as I believe in a respectful home environment and honoring children’s choices, I believe education must entail the same. I can not in good conscience force my children into an environment that removes autonomy, freedom, and respect for children. Where they are coerced into doing and thinking what others want for most of their waking hours. Respectful parenting goes hand in hand with unschooling.
Respectful parents are also honest with their children. We don’t invent reasons why they can’t do things, or gloss over details to protect them from things (unless it would be traumatic of course!). We’re upfront and tell them what is going on. They are equal members of the family and far more capable of understanding than most people believe. Honesty is always the best policy.
Respectful Parenting Is Not…
Punishment and Rewards
Respectful parents do not punish their children. This is often confronting to people who’ve grown up only knowing adults who relate to children in this way. Most people believe that the only way children will learn is through punishments, or rewards. We now know this is just not true. Punishments and rewards take the focus off learning from natural consequences, and instead children are more concerned with avoiding punishment or gaining a reward. I’d prefer my children to be intrinsically motivated to do the right thing, rather than only looking for what they will get out of it. Children do not need us to interfere with their learning about the world with our rules and punishments and micro management. What they need is good role models, people who will keep them safe, and support for when things don’t go to plan. Just like you would do for a friend or relative. They are not wild animals to be trained, but people learning about the world and their place in it.
Along with the more obvious ways of controlling behaviour above, respectful parents also don’t use more subtle forms of coercion. These include shame, blame, threatening, judgement, guilt, bribery, bargaining, praise, rewards charts, etc. We want authentic relationships with our children. If a friend did these things to you then you probably wouldn’t want to be friends with them anymore. Relationships built on respect mean that one person is not trying to control or influence the other, no matter how subtle they try to be about it.
“If you manipulate, coerce and bully your children, you will have no power at all. If you lead with humility, gentleness, and by example, you will need no power at all.” -William Martin
This is one of the biggest misconceptions about respectful parenting. Why are people so black and white? They seem to think you must either have complete control over your children’s every move, or else you’re letting them run ‘wild’: destroying property, being generally rude and obnoxious, and well on the way to becoming criminals. Calm down people! There’s a middle road. Respectful parents are involved with their children, supporting and guiding. We just don’t use force to do it! When something goes wrong you can choose to simply have a conversation and problem solve together. No need to come in with orders and punishments. We set limits and boundaries respectfully when needed to make sure no one is hurt.
You might see our kids doing things that other kids aren’t allowed to do, but that’s not permissive parenting, that’s a conscious choice. We reject the idea that kids should be seen and not heard and we have no desire to restrict their fun, creativity, and enthusiasm for life. Our kids might be the only ones playing in the fountain fully clothed while the other kids look on longingly, but it’s not because we don’t care. It’s because we do. We care about freedom and autonomy, not appearances and arbitrary rules.
Rules rules rules. If I was a kid I’d be fed up with all the damn rules. Respectful parents don’t set arbitrary rules. No bedtime just because people think kids need to go to bed at 7pm. No ‘you have to eat 5 bites of dinner before dessert’. No forcing ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ out of them. If we have any rules at all then there is a reason behind them, and they are agreed upon by everyone in the family. Rules set by parents and imposed on children are a recipe for disaster. It’s like an invitation for children to break them and not get caught. Humans naturally resist control, and if they didn’t have a say in the creation of the rules then there’s a high chance they are not the least bit invested in upholding them. If you have a concern you want to bring up with your kids, then have a simple conversation! Ask them what they think, see if you can come to an agreement. One agreement we have in our home is that we respect everyone’s personal space and no one is allowed to touch anyone else’s body without their permission. Because we all agreed to this, we are all equally invested in upholding it.
Smacking, whatever you want to call it. It’s the same thing. Obviously physically punishing your child is not respectful and it is not ok under any circumstances. I’m not going to beat around the bush on this one. If you are hitting your child you are doing the wrong thing and you need to stop.
Sometimes people see time out as a respectful alternative to hitting, but this isn’t the case. Time out is a punishment, and a pretty cruel one. Isolation and withdrawal of affection aren’t respectful ways to deal with children.
Not keeping them safe
Every time I talk about respectful parenting there’s someone that pipes up with ‘but what about when kids run on the road?’ I’ve talked about this before, but it’s pretty simple. You obviously stop them from doing anything that will cause serious injury, but you don’t need to hit them for it. Why would a dangerous situation be exempt from respectful parenting? There’s enough emotions going on, no need to add to it!
The goal of respectful parenting is not obedience. Children can even ‘talk back’. Shock horror! We’re not raising little soldiers. We’re raising people who will go out into the world one day on their own and need the skills to look after themselves. That means being able to stand up for themselves and voice their opinions. We want people who are confident and intrinsically motivated to make good decisions because they have had practice doing this. It’s not our goal to ‘break their will’, but to protect and nurture it.
Respectful parenting is not another technique to get kids to do what you want. I often hear people say that some aspects of respectful parenting wouldn’t work for their kids. But, it’s not about what ‘works’! We don’t give children freedom and autonomy with the expectation that they will still ultimately do what we want. We respect their freedom and autonomy because they deserve it, these are their rights. For example, if you’re only trying out letting your kids choose their bedtime as yet another method to get them to go to bed when you want them to, you have missed the point entirely. It’s not about your expectations, it’s about respecting children and their rights, and working together to find solutions that everyone in the family is happy with if need be.
I think that pretty much sums it up! Respectful parenting is about ending childism and relating to children in a way that honors them as people. It is such a gift to be able to have a relationship with your children based on equality, mutual respect, and love. But respect is not forced or demanded, it is earned. And who wants to be in charge of controlling people who don’t want to be controlled? How exhausting! Much better, and more enjoyable, to work together and protect these precious relationships. It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it!
“The best leaders are gentle. In our culture, we have been misled to believe that the tougher we are, the more respect we will gain, but that is simply not true. What we gain by being tough is fear, and fear is not respect. Respect is gained by giving it away.”
― Rebecca Eanes