If we want our children to be respectful of other people, they need our respect first, generously given to them throughout their most formative years.
It’s no easy task.
Parenting is the most vulnerable and difficult job you’ll ever have. You don’t ever clock out. You don’t get paid overtime. It runs your nerves raw to the bone and still won’t let up. Our kids can usually see right through us, smell our weaknesses and expose our own hypocrisy. Before anyone else, they know if we are actually putting in the work or just phoning it in. And the consequences of our inevitable mistakes may last a lifetime, compounding the pressure we feel. That’s a lot.
Even if we do it successfully, we rarely know for sure or are even thanked until the job is over. Parenting is a constant crucible for change, but it also opens us up to one of the deepest joys of life found in loving our children.
We are tasked with leading our children through a maze of life’s ambiguity, hoping we all make it out on the other side better than we entered into it. It’s easy to get lost along the way. But fortunately, a little respect can go a long way in lighting our path through difficulty and uncertainty. Simple regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others, is a profound guide to respectful parenting. Everybody wants to be treated with respect; I think it’s a universal need baked into our DNA. The giving and receiving of mutual respect connects us all as human beings.
With Nobody is the Parent They Want to Be, But We Can Still Be the Parent Our Kids Need, I hoped to have firmly established we don’t need any additional pressure put on us by the judgements of others or ourselves. We’re all doing the best we can for our families with the tools and resources that have given to us. Nobody else knows your children or what it’s like to be in your shoes.
To be clear, I’m not giving out parenting advice here. I am trying to lay out a vision— a non-exhaustive list of themes and values share by other respectful parenting families to help paint a picture of what respectful parenting might look like in practice. Below is a table of contents for more detailed post to come (titles will be links when available). Each is a set of descriptive examples, not prescriptive instructions.
If you trust yourself, you feel secure in your own skin — you’re not divided against yourself or plagued with self-doubt and shame. To intimately know your gifts and limitations and wield them each with wisdom is vital to navigating life. Many of us spend a lifetime trying to find such inner peace. Imagine if this process could start along side the development of a child’s core identity.
Trust is built with mutual, freely chosen respect. When we give this to a child, it becomes the internal confidence to know and develop his or her inner voice, moral compass, sense of responsibility and motivation. Trust is the foundation of self-regulation.
Rather than assuming children cannot be trusted to make good choices, respect assumes the opposite — you are someone who can be trusted.
Both become self-fulling prophecies. When respect guides our decisions, one of our highest parenting priorities becomes protecting this sacred inner trust.
Play is a child’s primary conduit for connection, it’s how they learn about the world and experience joy. Characteristics of play include the loss of inhibition and sense of time, and a shift into exploring possibilities.
Dr. Stuart Brown says, “The opposite of play is not work, the opposite of play is depression.” When we allow our child to own and direct our play together, it brings us into their world.
Child-led free play is a form of deeply listening to and affirming our children.
Surrendering to this kind of play, for as little as 15 minutes, gives us the kinds of connections we’ve always dreamed of having with our kids.
Obedience is often thought of as the prerequisite for helping children make good and moral choices when no one else is looking. But conventional obedience, especially if it is forced, teaches us far more about power and abuse than it does about respect and empathy. The latter only comes through connection.
This isn’t to say respect can’t set solid limits or boundaries (see setting clear limits).
It means rules cannot become more important than relationship.
Rules enforced simply because an adult said so become arbitrary; obedience applied here may be well-intentioned attempts for consistency, but it mostly just feeds an adult ego at the expense of the child’s heart. While consistency is a legitimate need for children, we don’t want it to become dogmatic and rigid like we’re trying to fit a cog into a machine when it needs to be flexible and fluid as a real person interacting with another human being. Connection always listens and makes room for one another’s needs, wants, desires and interests whenever possible.
During times of frustration, stress, or conflict, it can be helpful to describe the behavior or actions you see without shame, judgment or blame.
Sportscasting is a simple play-by-play of the situation and offers children real-time feedback to make more informed choices.
Naming the circumstances while leaving the interpretation open allows children to come up with their own solutions. It says I see you, your frustrations and how hard you are working on this problem. By framing the situation with empathy for everyone involved, it also says, you’re ok. I’m with you. You got this.
Imagine a young toddler takes a toy from another. Instead of taking it from the child, forcing him or her to give it back or saying it’s good to share, you could try this. “Johnny had the toy. Now Jill has the toy. You didn’t like that she took it out of your hands.” Maybe you wait for a nod and reassure him, “You can ask for it back.” You say to Jill, “Look at his face. How did he feel when you took the toy?” Maybe Jill will decide to give it back. Maybe she won’t. Maybe Johnny gets bored waiting for her and decides to find something else to play with now. The focus isn’t the content or toy, but the process from which we engage one another. We can trust our children to navigate that with minimal intervention. That’s how they learn, through their own experience, at their own developmental pace. The goal is to go beyond cliché platitudes and provide developmentally realistic tools for children to navigate and make room for others in their social world.
All behavior has an emotional context. Acknowledging this reality helps a child feel seen and heard just as they are, not only as we want them to be. It assures a child all of his or her emotions belong. Feel what you need to feel without judgment. There may be better ways to our express emotions, but with children, this cannot progress unless it correlates with brain development. Even naming feelings prematurely can stop a child from feeling the feeling they need to feel in order to work through it. Expressing emotions is often done poorly and sloppy for most of us; it takes years of practice in learning how to do it well.
Respect makes room for big, messy, or ugly feelings without inferring value, judgment, or shame.
This reassures our children all of their feelings belong in relationship with us, gives us the solid foundation we need for all that tough, emotional, inner work we’ll be doing for a lifetime.
After those feelings are freely expressed, the real work begins. A child can drown in the intensity of his or her own feelings without needed guidance. Emotion coaching is the relational process of working through those feelings and consequences. It’s where we help our children name their feelings, map out their inner world, and develop their skills to more effectively express themselves as they grow and mature. The concept comes from the research of Dr. John Gottman and often includes something similar to these 5 steps.
If and when a relational rupture occurs within the coaching process, remember this simple framework to address it.
Start first with connection, move to correction if needed, and then, end with (relational) repair.
Thanks to the work of Brené Brown, we now know how toxic and pervasive shame is in our culture. If guilt is feeling bad for something you did, then shame is feeling bad for who you think you are. Shame is poison for the soul, especially for young children. During the earliest formative years (0-7yrs), everything in a child’s immediate world is reflecting back and shaping his or her sense of self.
Far more than what our words could ever say, it’s our tone that forms our children’s core identity. Something as simple as a tone of exasperation can inadvertently fill a child with feelings of shame.
Avoiding shame entirely isn’t possible, or even the goal. Real grace is the healthy development of shame resiliency.
One practical action step is to keep our communication tone ratio of negative outbursts down to one for every seven interactions with a warmer, relationally affirming tone. When we are aware of our tone and what it communicates to our children, we can help them work through their feelings and develop a strong foundational identity resilient to the toxicity of shame (see cultivating inner trust).
For love to be love, it must be freely given. Preserving this freedom to give or not to give is the root of authenticity. We don’t want to control our children; we want genuine connection with them. Using tactics such as shame, blame, threats, judgment, guilt, bribery, bargaining, praise, or even reward charts can be forms of relational coercion with damaging results.
If we value socially responsibility such as sharing, saying sorry or hugging a loved one, we must be careful not to force them. We can only model and freely invite them. Manipulation — even well intentioned manipulation will backfire. Subtle guilt-based or coercive practices may effectively teach our children to go through the motions of an apology but in the process, take away their ability to develop genuine remorse or take responsibility to make things right by their own initiative.
Just like us, our children only emulate empathy and consideration through authentic connection and direct relational experience — the process itself is the message.
When children know where their boundaries are, they feel safe, secure and free. But freedom does not exist without discipline.
We need boundaries and clear limits to keep open pockets of free space available.
When faced with limits, children often do everything they can to test them. This is totally natural and essential for their development. Limits can also make children very angry — sometimes physically hitting or verbally screaming until they are convinced the boundary is solid enough they cannot move it. Knowing something is more powerful than the chaos they feel inside, like a calm and consistent parent with an empathetic ear, helps them relax, feel safe and protected. Now reassured, they can spend all their energies safely exploring the vast freedom inside the outer limits.
I want to acknowledge limits can be controversial within some respectful parenting circles for fear they are justification for controlling and authoritative parental behavior. If there is any fear, confusion, or an explosive controlling reaction, however, I would suggest that is actually the childhood wound left from our own authoritarian upbringing. No matter which way the pendulum swings, if such wounds are not worked through to the point of healing (read Parenting from the Inside Out), they can fester as trauma triggers, too easily tripped up by the testing process. No one wants to be the source of pain for their children. Shame will hide these wounds and repeat the cycle. And guilt will sink hooks into them, leading us to permissiveness and the enabling of unacceptable behavior.
The difference between authoritative control and limit setting is clarity and empathy. When we can empathize with all the feelings that come up in our children without destabilizing emotionally ourselves, we communicate You can handle this. You can get through this. You will come out on top and stronger than ever. Empathy is key in allowing a child to develop the inner self-control they need to truly be free.
“Punishment delays the development of empathy,” says Dr. Laura Markham. Conventional wisdom thinks in the exclusive terms of rewards and punishments, pain and pleasure. It assumes we will follow the instructions of our authorities if there’s enough payoff at the end or too much pain to continue otherwise. Both those paths lead to fear. Emphasizing external motivation not only kills natural, internal motivation, it also malforms the spirit of children. Too often they interpret punishment as telling them who they are, internalizing it as part of their identity rather than learning to avoid it.
Any form of hitting, spanking or physical punishment models violence. Punishment breeds resentment by compounding stress, while discipline on the other hand, is about applying comfort and relief to stress and chaos. Discipline comes from the root word disciple which is a student in training. Developmentally appropriate discipline teaches and guides children into a larger world — out of themselves, their pain, and exclusive self-interest into a world where other people’s wants, desires and rights are important too.
Where punishment uses fear as a mechanism for control, discipline keeps children’s neural pathways open and helps them learn from their mistakes.
Discipline focuses on teaching and learning, not fault or blame.
It walks alongside children in their most difficult moments, breaks down complex issues into a simple next steps, and gets out of the way for the child to try it all again.
You are in charge of your body. Your body is yours alone and you have the primary say over what happens to it. The same is true for everyone else, including children. When we allow kids to be empowered at this level, a strong foundation of consent securely holds up towers of respect for all other people. Regardless if someone else has more power than you, your dignity and bodily autonomy will not change. Regardless if someone else less power than you, their dignity and bodily autonomy will not change.
You have the power over and the responsibility for your own body.
Teaching kids to use their bodies wisely begins with experiencing true ownership of it.
Commands immediately draw parents and children into a power struggle and push us into adversary roles. Choices bring dynamic relationships more agency, opportunity, and empowerment to help navigate the many shades of grey areas. When we don’t tell kids what to do, but invite them to participate in the decisions governing their lives (at whatever level possible), we model the giving and receiving of mutual satisfying relationships.
Respectful parents seek to give as much choice to their children as they can handle.
But more isn’t always better. Too many choices can build up low-levels of anxiety and decision fatigue. Maybe you noticed a child who chooses their own breakfast every day is more irritable on those days and far more relaxed on days you just put something on the table in front of him or her. Like Netflix, unlimited choice really is a burden — especially if our kids aren’t ready to handle the weight of responsibility that comes with the choices we make. Fortunately, we learn to carry this weight on a sliding scale. When children are younger, we might give them less choice and responsibility around eating healthy food, media consumption, or operating heavy machinery. But opportunity gradually increases with age and maturity.
There is a interdependent correlation between the range of opportunity available to us and the capacity to take on the consequences (whether positive or negative) of our own choices.
As children grow up and become responsible over more facets of their own lives, more freedom and possibility open up until it all belongs to them alone.
Respect does not protect us from the natural consequences of our choices. But with respect as a central value, our kids don’t have to worry about shame or rejection when they make mistakes.
They have a safe place to experience failure, to explore and learn the secrets it alone can teach them.
We don’t need to create contrived consequences — that’s punishment. No, natural consequences flow directly from the choices we make. For example, if someone lies too often, it deteriorates trust. We are less likely to believe them when they might be telling the truth. If we want people to believe us, we have to tell the truth all the time. We don’t need to manage this and try to circumvent the consequences. We just need to get out of the way and keep our sincere empathy available. When we have a clear understanding of our own personal boundaries and appropriate limits for our kids, we know what does and doesn’t belong to us emotionally.
The consequences for stealing a chocolate bar at a gas station as a kid are less than the stealing money from the cash register as a teenager. Let kids make mistakes and learn from them as early as possible while the consequences are low.
When trying to implement these values, keep in mind respect can’t be reduced to a parenting technique. Empathy, kindness and respect are the underlying tones we use to model and communicate with our kids. It isn’t a script or set of magic actions, it’s a lifestyle practice. It’s not a way to avoid frustration, it’s a way to deal with frustration. We’ll make lots of missteps along the way, but we can own them and learn from them. Respect is a posture we take on to frame every relational interaction we experience together. We learn it by doing it.
As our children develop physically and emotionally, we believe this approach provides a reliable foundation for a lifetime of expressing and growing in human compassion, strength, dignity— and respect.
JANET LANSBURY gives practical and insightful advice for new parents, from babies to toddlers. Janet’s great if you’ve ever felt stuck in a moment of parenting chaos. Chances are high she’s already covered that specific situation with wisdom and nuance, answering questions from parents on her blog and podcast. Her mentor, Magda Gerber developed a model to care for babies as fully formed people deserving respect. Starting in 1970s, she founded Resources for Infant Educators, known as RIE together with pediatric neurologist, Tom Forrest.
DR. DANIEL SIEGEL has written several insightful books helping parents understand the science of neurology and how it relates to raising healthy kids. I highly recommend reading The Whole Brained Child, No Drama Discipline, and Parenting from the Inside Out. That last book dives into the real inner work we all need to do as parents to separate ourselves from the limits of our own upbringing.
L.R. KNOST is an prolific writer with a gift of capturing profound wisdom in concise meme-able quotes. Without judgement or shame, she is a fierce and poetic protector of children’s hearts.
DR. LAURA MARKHAM offers practical advice on peaceful parenting topics. She picks up where Janet ages out (at 3-4 year olds), and sheds light and wisdom on the increasing complexities of parenting bigger kids. She is especially insightful when dealing with sibling conflict. If you have more than one child, definitely read Peaceful Parents, Happy Siblings.
LORI PETRO and her TEACH through Love parenting courses help navigate issues with older kids. She created Conscious Communication Cards as an easy and physical resource to remind parents of positive interpersonal solutions to common problems.
PEACEFUL PARENTING COMMUNITY is a well moderated facebook group for parents to interact and gain wisdom from one another. It’s a unique resource where you can get almost immediate feedback on a specific parenting situation or challenge.
RACHEOUS founder Rachel shares insights from peaceful parenting and how it complements the unschooling learning approach. She shares heart touching stories of daily life sprinkled with practical wisdom.