“I’m not my child’s friend. I’m their parent!” I hear this sentiment a lot, usually from parents who feel that another parent is being too passive or permissive with their children. And while it’s true — parents play a different role than friends — I’m afraid that sometimes people on both sides of that scenario mistake the idea of showing kids respect with letting kids do whatever they want. Respectful parenting does not equal passive parenting. There’s no reason that parental authority can’t be practiced in a way that maintains a child’s dignity and worth as a human being.
Respectful parenting means recognizing that our children are unique people with their own personalities, preferences, and points of view. It means reining in our impulse to blow up when they act like the immature little humans that they are. It means listening to what they have to say and taking their perspectives into consideration. It means giving them the benefit of the doubt and room to make mistakes. It’s not forcing them into compliance, but meeting them where they are and leading them with gentle guidance in the direction we want them to go.
It doesn’t, however, 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.
The heart of respectful parenting is following the Golden Rule and treating your kids the way you’d want to be treated — if you were a kid. I wouldn’t want to be called names, so I don’t call my children names. I wouldn’t want to be screamed at for being forgetful or messy, so I don’t scream at my kids for those things (I try not to yell at all, though I’m not particularly successful in that department). I wouldn’t want to be hit for any reason, so I don’t hit my kids.
I might not enjoy gentler forms of discipline if I were a kid, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t want them deep down. Kids want and need to be taught what is appropriate, safe, and admirable. They want and need to know where the boundaries are and that their parents can be trusted at their word. Kids look to parents for comfort as well as for the lessons they need to learn. There’s nothing disrespectful in providing discipline.
Some people say that respect has to be earned, but I don’t believe that. I think all people, young or old, should be treated with respect. Kids internalize that value by being treated with kindness and dignity, and by seeing examples of people treating others with respect. I include self-respect in that category as well, which is why I don’t let my kids talk to me in ways I find disrespectful. If kids are raised in an environment of mutual respect, and are consistently reminded when they stray from it, it becomes a natural response.
That idea of consistency is key. Kids are going to test limits. Kids are going to mess up. Kids are going to be tired or cranky or stressed at times, just like adults. As parents, practicing empathy is important, but so is staying consistent with rules and expectations. Balancing the two can be tricky sometimes, and parents obviously have to discern when it’s appropriate to make rare exceptions. But consistency builds trust and a sense of security.
My daughter, who is a teen now, has expressed multiple times that she understood why my husband and I stuck to our guns in certain situations and is glad that we did, even though she didn’t like it at the time. Respect doesn’t mean avoiding confrontation or letting kids do what they want. In the big picture, it’s more respectful to a child to be a loving parent with rules and boundaries than one who ditches the idea of discipline in favor of keeping the peace.
Parenting isn’t easy, no matter how you approach it. But speaking from experience, treating kids with respect opens paths of communication and builds a foundation of trust, which helps even out the inevitable hills and hurdles that come with the territory. And it helps create a relationship that can include both parenting and friendship.