Sara is fuming. Evie*, her six-year-old, just told her to “buzz off” in front of a friend. The words sting, and Sara feels instantly disrespected. She wants to tell her daughter to apologise and go to her room. But instead she says: “I don’t like it when you speak to me like that,” and walks inside.
The casual observer might assume Sara is either a spineless or permissive parent. But it’s what happens behind the scenes that makes respectful parenting so unique.
As Sara considers what may be upsetting her daughter, she remembers that Evie asked for help to find her favourite teddy bear, but her mother was busy and brushed her off.
“I cut her off, just as she cut me off,” Sara realises.
Later Sara tells Evie: “I’ve never heard you say ‘buzz off’ to me before. I don’t like it when you speak to me like that. Is something bothering you?”
Evie opens up about her lost teddy, and how worried she is. After they share a hug, Evie apologies for speaking rudely and they search for the teddy together.
Respectful parenting gives Sara the opportunity to understand the reasons behind her children’s emotional outbursts. If she had simply punished Evie, causing more resentment and hurt, she would never have found out what was truly troubling her daughter.
“Children are still learning about the world and how to deal with other people and their own emotions. We need to help them with that, we don't have to punish them for it."
Andrea is a Queensland mother of three, and has also chosen to parent respectfully. Andrea and her husband unschool their children, and see their role as parents as one of guidance, support and companionship.
Born and raised in Croatia until she was nine, Andrea has been intentional about the parenting style she wants to create, which differs from her parents’ authoritarian style. “We've had to work hard on our expectations and the way in which we communicate with our children. It's a work in progress, and we are constantly reflecting when we feel we are slipping into the authoritarian type of parenting we were both raised with.”
Andrea’s parents have been quite supportive of her parenting choices, but early on there were a few conflicts, especially around the use of praise and their choice to unschool.
“As the children have matured, so has our relationship with my parents,” says Andrea. “My parents can see it works for us.”
Dr Justin Coulson is a leading parenting expert in Australia, author of 21 Days to a Happier Family, and father to six children. He has observed a surge in this respectful parenting approach in recent years.
Just because that was the way was raised, I don’t feel that’s right.
“We’re now living in an age where people are willing to question authority instead of complying with it, and this is a generational change. People are now saying ‘just because that was the way was raised, I don’t feel that’s right.’”
Dr Coulson observes that in the 21st century, “equality, egalitarianism and values of humanity, respect and kindness are very highly prized”, and attributes this cultural shift in values to the increase in respectful parenting approaches.
The trend towards respectful parenting approaches may also be due to the shrinking size of Australian families, down to an average of 2.6 people in each home.
“Because our families are smaller, research shows that investment in child rearing tends to be higher,” Dr Coulson says. “Parents are allocating more resources to fewer children. Children are getting a quality of parenting from their parents they haven’t previously received.”
Dr Nic Lucas is an entrepreneur, wellness coach, and Executive Editor of the International Journal of Osteopathic Medicine. He lives in Sydney with his wife and two children, and practices respectful parenting.
“My role as a parent is to help my children thrive, live as their best self, and become adults who have a significant positive influence on their immediate and global communities,” Nic says.
“Because our families are smaller, children are getting a quality of parenting from their parents they haven’t previously received.”
But this doesn’t mean that Nic’s children have free rein. For instance, he and his wife set boundaries around screen time for their 12- and 10-year-old. These limits are established through discussion and collaboration, rather than using a traditional authoritarian approach.
“We presented our reasons for using computers, as well as our reasons for putting a limit on time spent on them,” Nic says. “Our children accepted and agreed with these boundaries and we now expect them to follow through. If they stay on for longer than agreed, that triggers a conversation.”
For Andrea, boundaries revolve primarily around safety. “We’ve discovered that life itself has a lot of natural boundaries. This is what led to us deciding to centre our limits around safety.”
Their boundaries relate to road safety, bodily autonomy, physical safety of others, personal safety and care and being safe with other’s property.
“It seems simple, but we haven't found many aspects of life that don't fit under this umbrella.”
For Sara, who completed a Masters in Clinical Psychology, raising independent children who are encouraged to develop their own opinions and desires is the ultimate goal. When her children inevitably cross boundaries, Sara uses this as an opportunity to guide them to communicate respectfully.
“Children are still learning about the world and how to deal with other people and their own emotions. We need to help them with that, we don't have to punish them for it.”
And these parents are under no illusions that they’re doing everything right. “Being committed to respectful parenting doesn't mean that we're perfect,” says Nic. “It means that when we're not perfect, we seek to make things right, and use the situation to bring us closer together.”
“Respect goes both ways,” Andrea tells me. “If I show my children respect, then they show me respect. Our children are very capable and we have a lot of faith and trust in them.”
How can I make the switch to respectful parenting?
Respectful parenting, also known as gentle or peaceful parenting, is based on a mutually respectful parent-child relationship, where parents work with their children to find solutions to everyday parenting challenges, understanding their children’s underlying physical and emotional needs. This contrasts with authoritarian parenting, typically focused on motivating compliance with punishment and reward.
Common tenets of respectful parenting are:
- Giving choices, not commands.
- Labelling the behaviour, not the child. For example, “I can see you are feeling angry,” not “you are an angry boy”.
- Recognising that emotional expression is healthy.
- Guiding your child in how to express these emotions respectfully.
- Understanding that children and adults alike need space to cope with strong emotions before they can talk about it.
- Trusting your child to make good choices (and letting them learn by making bad choices too).
We asked Dr Justin Coulson, one of Australia’s leading parenting experts, to give advice on how to approach three common parenting situations respectfully.
Your tween-aged child is playing his/her favourite video game and you need him/her to set the table for dinner.
A respectful parent would first consider timing, and give their child more warning. If he gets upset, the parent will set a clear limit and calmly say, “In our house we treat each other kindly and speak to each other respectfully. Would you like to try that again?” This gives the child the opportunity to rethink their attitude and respond in a more respectful manner.
You are leaving the house and your toddler has a tantrum, refusing to put on his/her shoes.
A respectful parent may pause and consider the context before becoming dogmatic, and maybe realise it’s not worth the fight. Perhaps he or she is going in a pram, and shoes won’t be a requirement.
When shoes are a necessity, the respectful parent will offer choices to give the child a degree of autonomy. The choice might be: “Would you like to wear these shoes, or those shoes? … Put on your shoes, or do it yourself? … Put on the shoes before we go in the car, or when we get there?”
When you ask your son/daughter how his/her day was after school one day, he/she snaps at you rudely.
A respectful parent will understand when a child needs space and provide it. They will know that behind every challenging behaviour is an unmet need, whether it’s hunger, anger, loneliness, tiredness, stress or sickness. They will gently remind their child what the limits are, that there’s an expectation to speak nicely and ask them to try again. If the child remains obstinate, the respectful parent will show understanding and compassion and set an appointment with the child to chat about things when they’re feeling better.
*Not her real name.
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