There have been some interesting comments by readers in response to the articles posted as part of our Praise A Parent Campaign. There was one a number of weeks ago that I would like to comment on. This reader refers to going to a public pool in her neighborhood and writes, “On occasion I see a parent who speaks in a friendly, respectful tone, explains to her child, for example, when they will have to leave and why, and gives regular updates as to how much time is left. Though clearly in charge, she isn’t heavy handed, does not resort to bribes, threats, etc. When I witness this I feel like complimenting the parent….”
It struck me that both parents involved, the observer and the one observed, are reflecting a set of values about parent-child relationships. So often parents ask for the “right” way to handle this or that issue with a child. The idea seems to be that the right techniques will avoid conflict and solve problems – that there is a “right” way to raise children. Yet so much of the way we respond to our children is actually an expression of our own personal values about relationships generally, and with children in particular.
Let’s look at the values involved in the comment I have quoted. The first, and perhaps most fundamental, is the “friendly, respectful tone”. I don’t think the writer means the mother is talking to her child as a friend, but rather that she is not using a critical or bossy voice. The word “respectful” is most significant. To me this means the mother sees her child as another person with feelings and wishes, who deserves to be considered. This is further elaborated on in “explains to her child when they will have to leave and why.” This decision is based in reality, which she shares with her child, rather than on an arbitrary whim of mom’s.
“She gives regular updates as to how much time is left.” Here too, the mother is respecting the fact that children have a poor concept of time, and have difficulty moving from one activity to another – especially when it entails leaving something they like. Updates about time left helps keep a child on track.
“Though clearly in charge, she isn’t heavy handed.” In a way, that is the most difficult thing to accomplish. Often “heavy handed” means acting bossy, which in turn can come from not feeling in charge. Conveying the sense of being in charge really does come from feeling in charge, from feeling confident about what you are asking or doing. Without that feeling of confidence, too often a parent can end up sounding as though she is either giving an order or asking for a child’s o.k.
“Does not resort to bribes, threats, etc.” Bribes reflect a parent’s belief that a child will not respect her request – that it will not be valid enough in and of itself for her child to comply. Threats imply an attempt at coercion to bring about a desired result. Both suggest an absence of mutual respect between parent and child.
Perhaps the most important thing about this anecdote is that it describes what must be the kind of ongoing relationship that exists between a mother and child. Treating each other with respect is not a one time event. To have a meaningful impact on behavior, a climate of mutual respect has to be established over time. Children trust that they will be considered, while parents understand that children are still learning to consider others – their parents first of all.
Even when parents value treating others with respect, this often doesn’t get carried over to relationships with their children. Part of the reason for this is a hangover of an older set of values that said children should be seen and not heard. The feeling still lingers that children should just do as they are told – that the wishes of the adult are inherently more important than those of the child.
Too often the idea of respecting a child’s feelings and wishes gets translated as doing whatever a child wants. But what it really means is respecting the fact that a child’s feelings and wishes are as important to a child as the parent’s wishes are to her – or him. Actually, this is part of making all relationships work – recognizing what is important to another person as well as what is important to oneself.
It is giving this recognition to a child that helps him learn to accept not always getting what he wants. A parent respecting a child’s wishes, showing they are being considered, is an important part of teaching him to respect the wishes of others – especially the parent.