I’m just going to say it and hopefully you will read on to understand my perspective…….I really don’t like the word “respect”, “respectful” even worse, and “disrespectful” is the word that bothers me the most. I say this because I feel “respect” is used as an umbrella term to define a variety of behaviours, with many different intents. Most commonly it means kind, polite or obedient. This is where I feel the use of the word is being misused to impose power on children. When it is used in reference to obedience; “when I ask him to clean his room I expect him to be respectful and clean his room without any back talk or reminders,” it is an expectation of compliance, not respect. It is nice when a child easily cleans their room but what is the bigger message being sent here? You must obey the commands of adults, without protest, or else you are disrespectful? That is a dangerous message that can make children vulnerable to predators.

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When someone refers to an adult as “respectful,” what do you envision? A person who does what their told and doesn’t talk back? No! Funny enough, in the adult world, this is considered a character flaw. People like this are referred to as “doormats,” “spineless” and even “cowards.” But we say children MUST learn how to be respectful if they want to be successful in the adult world. No, the truth is “respect” in the form of obedience, is not a skill we need to teach children for success in the adult world. It does, however, at times make their lives, and ours, easier, while they are children, but at what cost to their own intellectual and emotional development? Why do we feel sorry for, and look down on the adult who is a “doormat”? Because we know that they must not be happy spending their lives meeting everyone else’s needs but their own. Instead let’s teach our children how to be kind adults. How to care for others, how to be considerate of other people’s needs, but also, how to take care of themselves, how to get their own needs met and how to balance the needs of others in the process.

How do we do this? I think we need to return to the original objective… we want our children to be kind. Because really, is it about which fork to use…. or is it about being kind to other people? Expressing genuine gratitude, treating others the way they want to be treated and valuing the needs of others, as well as themselves. That is my image of a “respectful” child and we teach these skills by modelling them. By saying please and thank you, by holding open doors, by saying “hello” to people on the street. Model being a kind person for your child. Give up your seat on the bus, let someone go ahead of you in line, express kindness and gratitude towards people who are serving you and your family. Your child will learn by example how to be kind and considerate of others.

Do Respect and Love Go Together?

Respect, when it is in the context of a loving relationship, is not simply a polite understanding of general manners and kindness; it is much deeper. Children always behave worst for their parents. This is not because they want to hurt us the most, it is because they feel safe to release their feelings within the safety of their homes. They bottle everything up and eventually need to release it. I am pretty sure most adults also have moments like this, we just have so much more freedom and experience to be able to cope (and many of us still don’t always cope in optimal ways).

“Children are not giving you a hard time, they are HAVING a hard time” Alfie Kohn.

So when you feel your child is being “disrespectful,” try asking yourself, what is really going on? It usually means they feel disconnected from you. This can be painful and cause feelings of rejection. Rejection is often met with hostility. When a child feels disconnected from their parents, it can elicit defensive behaviours. Some children whine a lot and become “clingy” when they feel disconnected, others shut-down and become withdrawn and quiet. We have a tendency to label this as disrespectful but where does that get us? Our child likely feels even more disconnected and misunderstood. Start with trying to reconnect and see how that leads to a place of love and understanding. You will forget all about wanting your child to “respect” you because you will be too busy connecting with them, which feels so much better.

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