Demanding Obedience vs. Building Respect

Previous generations often emphasized obedience in children as the ideal outcome of parenting. This arose from a hope that children would respond to a parent’s directives, as opposed to having a rebellious attitude.  Ideally, however, at the heart of a child who responds to a parent’s instructions is not blind obedience but rather loving respect.

How do we find this balance between obedience and respect?  Is balance even possible, or are these two concepts mutually exclusive?  Most parents agree: they do not wish to have a child rearing approach that even remotely resembles that of authoritarian dominance.  Most don’t want to act like prison guards. And yet, many also feel an approach which values listening, patience, and responsivity will be “soft” and result in children who are entitled, lazy, and spoiled.

Positive parental attention and strong boundaries guide children’s behavior toward cooperation. When a child’s emotions and needs are validated by his parent the child can trust that his parent recognizes the challenge of the situation and will remain alongside him within that challenge.  Validation leads the child’s mind to then more easily shift into solution-seeking behavior independently without the need for the parent to tell or demand the child to respond in a certain way.

Though parents may not be thrilled with the solution the child has found, validation allows for the avoidance of a power struggle.  The opportunity for more teaching between parent and child exists. The key, however, is that the child begins to find solutions to his or her aggravating problems with loving and firm guidance, rather than only listening for directives from authorities.  Children are taught to think through and consider the consequences of their actions rather than just react to make their parents happy.

“Being a good parent does not mean your child acts the way you want all day, every day, in all situations,” says Holly Schweitzer Dunn, LISW. Far too often, parents use their children’s behavior as a measuring stick for their own parental abilities rather than allowing them to simply reflect the moment or situation in which the child is living.  Even good parents have children who make mistakes, push boundaries, and misbehave.  This is often far more reflective of the child’s developmental stage, personality, and the very human experience of overcoming obstacles than it is about “soft” parenting.

Parents desire a trusting and mutually respectful relationship with their children that includes children responding to parental directives without questioning parental intentions.  However, we must remember that children, in health, question everything as a means to learning. We see this behavior from infancy through adolescence: the baby putting dirt in her mouth to learn what is edible and what is not, the child questioning why he must go to bed at a certain time when he is not yet tired, the teenager questioning how far she can test her curfew boundaries.  Parents can honor children’s attempts to learn by taking their own inquisitive posture to power struggles within family dynamics.

A few practices that could be helpful when exploring respect:

  1. Utilize your own “beginner’s mind” to ask questions about the situation rather than casting judgment upon your children. Why is this important to my children? What is my role in this situation?
  2. Cast a sense of respect toward yourself. Honor your own emotional limits, and when needed, take a break – tap out to your partner or give enough energy to diffuse the situation and return to it when you have more emotional capacity.
  3. Teach children what respect looks like by offering it to them. Respect their capabilities by not asking more of them than their development allows.  Model how respect is given and received, and in this, how relationships are reciprocal.
  4. Validate, and then move toward solutions. Avoid jumping directly into a role of telling children what to do, but rather helping them think and consider outcomes for facing the challenges ahead of them.
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