What is respectful parenting?

When we treat a child with respect, it totally reshapes the relationship between a parent and a child and changes the way of doing things, compared to traditional parenting styles. I remember being a kid, adults often talk about children as if they never were one themselves, as if kids are different beings altogether and they can’t relate or see their perspective at all, but personally I regularly base my parenting on how I felt when I was a child. It’s like working in a coffee shop after being a customer there for years. We’re jumping into a new role having experienced the stage beforehand, we are then equipped with a fair amount of knowledge to know how we should treat customers based on how we felt when we were customers ourselves.

The first time I came across respectful parenting was around ten years ago. I was working for a family who had two kids, age one and almost three. The Mum had gone back to work as a teacher and I was working alongside the Dad as he transitioned back into work, with me gradually taking over the child care. The way they were with their kids was completely different to everything I had known before. I came up with a way of describing it, ‘teach, don’t block’. As an example, the one year old climbed onto a small kids table whilst me and his dad were sat at the dinner table. The Dad didn’t get up or go to do anything at all whilst it was happening, even though he could plainly see the risk that was unfolding infront of us. I wondered if his lack of action might be because he wanted me to deal with it, so as the little one reached the top of the table – which was impressive – I asked if he wanted me to get him down. He shook his head and said that he and his wife let him climb as much as possible so that he learns the skill. You might be thinking what I was thinking at the time-

‘What a risky little technique to try out on your most precious loved ones.’

But then the baby stood up on the table top. And in a swift but calm motion, the Dad moved to stand at the side of the table, arms passive but ready to catch if something went awry. He stood there as the baby climbed from the table top, onto the breakfast bar which it was sat next too. I pointed out that for a one year old the baby was very good at climbing, and his Dad said that they just don’t stop him when he does it, they instead support him safely, but allow him to move and practise. To stress the point that these parents were not irresponsible, I’ll point out that on every door in their house that they left open regularly, they had those little things that sit on the door frame to stop the door from being able to close and trap their fingers. So they weren’t lazy or lacking the ability to perceive risk, they gave their kids the freedom to figure things out, whilst being attentive and ready to rescue them if needed.

We were walking to the park on another day and the three year old was on his scooter and went quite far down the street from us, even on a pretty quiet suburban road it freaked me out. I asked his Dad if it was okay and he said yes. He explained that they had spoken to him from a young age about keeping safe around the roads, and that he knew he needed to stop and wait when it was time to cross, which he did, every single time. The Dad went on to say that they had friends with a kid the same age who had always been put in a buggy or made to hold a hand, and hadn’t been spoken to about road safety, and now when he was let loose would go wildly running across the roads and apparently couldn’t be safely left at all.

It’s impossible to know if their friends kid would behave differently around the roads had he been treated the same way as my employers had treated their road-concious son. Nature and nurture are both influencers on who we are and maybe the friends child would still have been a danger to himself even with a more respectful parenting approach, but the difference in the two children was definitely interesting. To me it looked like there was something to this ‘teach, don’t block’ method, and working alongside this family set in motion a change in the way I treated children myself as it demonstrated that respectful parenting has the power to give kids more than when we simply control them.

I am very lucky for the type of parents I have, if I had be born to very strict and controlling parents, I would have been an absolute nightmare of a teenager, like so many of my friends who pushed against the rigid boundaries they were surrounded by. I had no need to rebel, because I was respected, as a person with my own thoughts and feelings, I was allowed the freedom to make my own choices. Obviously each child is different, and I believe we need to tailor our parenting to match the personality, but in general I think respecting kids is extremely important, and massively impacts their behaviour and the way they see themselves.

There are so many things we say and do as parents almost instinctually because it’s how we were spoken to and it’s just considered ‘normal’. It takes sitting down and actually thinking about it to realise how much we are controlling our kids rather than respecting them and their need to learn things for themselves. Some things we say as parents:

‘Go to bed.’

‘Finish your dinner.’

‘We are doing an activity now.’

‘You are going to your friends house.’

Yes these are all completely standard phrases used when talking to children and saying them doesn’t make anyone a bad person, they are purely what we are used to. But the thing is, when you actually think about them, each one of these phrases demonstrates two things, the parent feels the need to control the situation and they also do not believe that their child has the right and the self knowledge to determine their own wants and needs. Our job is to grow adults, that is the end goal, allowing them the simple thing of bodily autonomy and the opportunity to make their own choices will give them a much greater chance at finding independence.

‘If I don’t make them go to bed, they won’t go at all!’

‘But if I don’t ensure that eat their food they will be hungry.’

‘We need to do activities at certain times so that they get done.’

‘If they don’t go to their friends house as arranged it will look rude.’

Make no mistake, I understand and I hear you, AND I still battle with all these thoughts at times. It takes time and practise to break habits and form new ways of thinking, on top of that, relinquishing control is very difficult, an not to mention bloody inconvenient and sometimes even embarrassing (for us – not the kids – they don’t care what other people think most of the time).

‘If I don’t make them go to bed, they won’t go at all!’

Trust me, I understand how hard it is. I’ve experienced it when little S doesn’t want to go to bed until 10pm for two weeks in a row. (Cue shock and possible judgement). We both end up knackered and daily life becomes dotted with regular meltdowns and fragility. However, parents who commit to a scheduled bed time often face these battles too, but that struggle is usually based on a battle for control because the child feels as if they have none.

So what happens? Do I just accept a life of being tired and having an exhausted kid? Sometimes, yes, because I believe that respecting her is that important. The rest of the time, no. Picture this, you have a friend in an unhealthy relationship. They are with some one who you know is going to hurt them, because you’ve been through it yourself. You warn them, but you can’t stop them, they make their own choice. They end up, like you expected, hurt. You’re a good friend, so you don’t say the irritating phrase ‘ I told you so.’ Instead you comfort them, and look after them while they get over it. Then they start dating someone new, and you see the same warning signs again. You’re friend unfortunately doesn’t because they are smitten with more favourable characteristics. So you warn them again. This time, your friend listens, and stops seeing the person, and doesn’t end up in a mess like the did before. So this is how it goes with respectful parenting, advice, child makes their own choice, support.

We have gone through times of little sleep, I started letting S choose her own bed time about a year ago, and it has been challenging, I speak honestly because I don’t want to pretend like this is an easy, faultless route. But, eventually, S learns the consequences of her decisions for herself, which makes the lesson far more meaningful and relevant. Apparently it’s usually between the ages of 5 and 7 that children begin to understand consequences, so we can’t expect them to make the best choices for themselves at a very young age. But with time, guidance and practise they can get there.

When it comes to bed time, these are the things I say to help S form the connections between choices and consequences:

‘How do you feel today? Do you think you might be feeling very tired and a bit delicate because you stayed up so late last night? Maybe tonight, when I suggest it might be a good time to get ready for bed and read some stories, we could do that?’

Again, to be fully open and honest, I have gone through up to two weeks of having this conversation every morning. When we’ve finished dinner and had some time to unwind, I suggest getting ready for bed, then every half hour or so I point out the time, suggest seep would be a good option, and remind S what it feels like when we don’t get enough sleep. Even if she goes against my advice, I don’t force her, I respect her choice, even when it pains me. At some time between 9 – 11pm she does ask to go to bed, she finally recognises being tired and decides that she needs to go to bed.

We have now reached a point where about 90% of the time S wants to go to sleep at a decent time. The times where she doesn’t are usually because we are away seeing friends and family, and she’s more interested in time with them than sleep, which I absolutely understand.

‘But if I don’t ensure that eat their food they will be hungry.’

So what about food and eating at certain times? Food, like sleep, is an incredibly difficult area stop controlling and instead practise respectful parenting . For me personally, this is the area where I have found it the hardest to simply not worry. I am currently learning new habits by breaking old ones, and am stopping myself from saying classic phrases like,

‘Are you sure you’ve finished?

‘Maybe just have a few more mouthfuls?’

If someone asked me those questions when I said I was done with a meal, I’d be offended and pretty irritated. I clearly know when I’m finished, because I can feel my body, and frankly, if I’m saying I’m done with this meal because I want to save some space for that delicious pudding, then that’s my choice. So I allow children the same respect here that I demand for myself. If S says she’s done, the food is cleared away (or if it’s a meal that might be worth saving because she’s not had much and it will keep well, I’ll cover it and put it on the side or in the fridge. Because I have experienced the times where S says she’s done, then an hour later wants it back. This rarely happens, so most the time the food is just cleared away, but I use my judgement and hopefully get it right.

Because I have had issues around food myself in the past, it’s an area that has always made me worry. Which is stupid, because than in itself will potentially get picked up on by S and will pass the same problems onto her anyway. So one of my big battles, which I finally, after literally years, feel like I’m winning, is not stressing over it at all. Multiple times I have heard the same thing said by a range of health professionals,

‘Babies and children will not starve themselves, if they don’t eat much for a few days, whether due to illness or simply lack of wanting to, don’t worry. They will make up for it.’

I pass this on to everyone when they mention being worried about their kids not having enough to eat. Obviously there is a tiny percent of situations where there is more to it, but that’s generally in older children and is thankfully, uncommon. The thing is, it’s so hard to let go of this because again like sleep, its just so inconvenient sometimes.

‘If they don’t eat now, they’ll want to eat later when we are going to be out andthat’s not convenient.’

Yup. That’s how it goes. It’s funny because with babies, its more common now to feed on demand. So we tailor our lives around being aware that at some point they might need to be fed. Plans are altered or amended last minute, things are thought of ahead, like is there somewhere to stop and feed if we need to? Packing a bag with bottles or snacks so we can be ready whenever it’s needed. But suddenly it seems kids reach an age, and I’m unsure of the cut off point, maybe its school age, when they have to fit around a schedule, its no longer changed in accordance with their needs. I get this from a practical point of view, like if they are in classes they will have to wait until break time for a snack or a meal, but is that fair?

As an adult, even if you work in an office and have a schedule you need to fit around, the chances are, if you’re hungry or thirsty and can’t wait for your usual break time, you have the freedom to go and grab a snack or a drink when you need to. Sure, maybe a good employee would eat enough at breakfast to sustain themselves until lunch, but maybe you didn’t feel hungry this morning, and why would you force food down out of convenience, surely that’s not a healthy way to act. And hopefully, if you’re diet needs aren’t quite in line with your planned breaks, no one is nagging you and huffing at the inconvenience you’re being, because that wouldn’t make you feel great.

So adults and infants are generally given this freedom to eat and drink when they feel the need, but children are not. Maybe we just need to sustain our habits from caring for little ones, always be prepared, have snacks handy or know where you can get one from if you’re out. If S isn’t eating when I’d ideally like her to, one of two things is usually happening, either I’ve made food when she wasn’t hungry which is my error because she has I’d say 95% accuracy on knowing whether or not she’s hungry (very rarely she says she is, I make her something, then she says she wasn’t actually hungry after all) If that’s not the problem, then it’s usually a case of her being hungry but distracted by something more interesting, like having fun with her cousin. At which time I point out we could eat and then play, sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, my sister an I have generally organised a lunch which can be put by and eaten later, or we have something else on the back burner.

Forward planning, flexibility and patience are the key factors needed around food. Forcing our kids to eat when they don’t want to is likely to lead to problems of its own, giving them the freedom and respect to decide for themselves what and when they need to eat will allow them to be come heathy intuitive eaters, rather than habitual eaters.

‘We need to do activities at certain times so that they get done.’

Have you ever tried to do work when you’re really not in the mood for it? Sometimes I do, and it’s hard going. Most days I plan a schedule that actually fits my mindset. My peak work time is between lunch and dinner, so I have a schedule that allows for this. We are more likely to be productive and focused on tasks if we are in the right mood for them.

The time that S seems best suited to do activities that require concentration varies from day-to-day, she’s a developing human being, so much like a babies nap schedule regularly being updated, her timetable needs to be tweaked often too. I have learnt that if she’s hungry or hasn’t been outside and had the chance to run off some steam, she’s unlikely to want to do a sit-down activity. And sometimes even when both food and fresh air have been provided, she still might not be in the mood to do an activity, even one that she herself has chosen the day before. Instead she might want to do something totally different, and as much as I might want to sit and do a project with her about space, I understand that pushing it when it’s not wanted isn’t going to be productive or pleasant for either of us, so we do something different, and I ensure that above all else, what S is getting is quality time with me, and we’ll do the space project another day when she is up for it.

Some parents have schedules that aren’t as flexible as mine, which can be an added challenge, and I understand that we often want or kids to do activities that provide an end product, because it makes it seem like we have achieved something and done our job well. But actually an end product is no more valuable than general quality time with our children. A game of hide-and-seek may not result with a cool model you built together, but it does allow play and bonding, which are very valuable things. Doing something specific in the time that you allocated for that activity can feel really important, especially wen you might not get another chance in the day, but respecting children’s wants and dropping our own expectations can lead to a lot more fun and a lot less stress.

‘If they don’t go to their friends house as arranged it will look rude.’

We live in a society where appearances matter too much. S has been wearing pyjamas almost everyday for the past month. Most of the time it doesn’t bother me at all, but on certain occasions, like when we’ve gone to an event or club, it has. But I check myself, why does it bother me? She’s comfortable, she’s happy, she’s clean and she’s not harming anyone, so why does it bother me? Quite simply, because I worry what other people will think. I have worked hard to change myself a lot and in various ways over the last decade, one of the ways I wanted to improve was to become more confident, and I recognised that not caring about what other people think of me was a good way to achieve this. It’s liberating, and means I’m much happier and less stressed about matters that don’t need to be stressed over.

Things still come up that have the potential to make me worry what other people think, such as when S is living in jimjams, or when she refuses to share her toys with another child infront of other parents, or when I cancel plans because I need a few hours of rest, all these situations could make me fret about the opinions of others and how they see me. But peoples opinions of me have zero value. If someone thinks I’m a bad parent because my kid is in pyjamas in the middle of the day, then that’s their opinion based on their own expectations and priorities. If other parents judge me because I don’t force S to share her toys with other children, I’m fine with that, what would make me feel unhappy would be if I compromised by beliefs and changed my actions based on the opinions of others. If a friend sees my decision to cancel plans because I recognise the fact that I’m really in need of a few hours rest as rude, that’s up to them. I believe that looking after myself is more important than conforming to traditional societal expectations of being polite.

I’ve been someone who believes that appearances matter, and it didn’t help me or make me happy. I think particularly as a parent, prioritising what we feel is important matters far more than how it looks to other people. I respect S and her right to make decisions for herself, that doesn’t change just because we are around others who may not hold the same beliefs, even if I can see that it makes them uncomfortable. I want to raise a child who doesn’t mould themselves to the expectations of others but instead has the confidence and strength to stay true to who they are and the values they have, so I model this in my own life.

Respect and safety – can you draw a line if you are a respectful parent?

Yes. Funnily enough, I want my kid alive and safe. Picture this, you are walking home with a friend who finds it funny to run in the road infront of traffic, do you let them continue? Obviously not. You’d physically restrain them if necessary in order to keep them alive and unharmed. Even though they are an adult and you respect their right to make their own choices, you can see that there is a genuine risk, there’s a line where stepping in becomes appropriate in order to keep them safe.

Being a respectful parent doesn’t mean you’re irresponsible, unrealistic or lazy, it means that you keep children safe and support them whilst not controlling them to the point where they feel powerless, frustrated and have no opportunity to learn their own needs and independence. It’s recognising that this is a long process that requires time, attention and commitment. It’s accepting that rather than forcing children into what best fits us, both in terms of schedules and appearances, we instead work alongside them to choose a path that fits everyone, without worrying what other people might think.

I fully understand and respect that this is not for everyone, for some it is just too hard, too time consuming or even just too challenging to break down old ways of doing things when it’s all you’ve ever known. What I really appreciate is people making the effort to treat S with respect in the way that I do. My parents for example, I have seen them make a conscious effort to leave traditional ways of treating children behind and instead do things the way I am because the respect me and my decisions, and that means so much.

Quick tip on how to practise being a respectful parent

In changing myself to become respectful of my own child and other children, I’ve had to question everything I say and do towards them. This would be trying on a smooth running day, but on those days where I’m flagging hard and my patience isn’t at it’s peak, it can be difficult to know how to handle things in the right way. So when I find I’m unsure I ask myself, ‘would I speak to/treat an adult this way?’, generally that gives me the answer as to how to go forward.

It’s not always easy, but I can say with confidence that if I wasn’t respectful towards my own child, she’d be an unhappy and frustrated person and we’d have a very strained relationship, and we both deserve better than that.

‘A person’s a person, no matter how small.’ – Dr. Seuss

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