Childrearing practices run the gamut when it comes to commanding respect from little ones. In order to comply with our elders’ wishes, many of us were raised on the allure of special treats, fear of punishment, and “Because I said so!” declarations. Most parents (my own included) are just doing the best they can to teach their offspring right from wrong. Of course, every parent makes mistakes along the way. Now as a parent myself, I see firsthand that being the adult responsible for creating and enforcing boundaries to teach valuable life lessons is hard. Really hard. And the list of options of how to go about things is endless.
When my daughter entered toddlerhood and began expressing her own ideas and preferences, I came across the term “respectful parenting.” For those unfamiliar, respectful parenting (also known as gentle, positive, or progressive parenting) is a compassionate approach used by many parents to earn their child’s respect instead of demanding it.
In general terms, adults who practice this philosophy take ample time to teach children empathy, understanding, and mutual respect based on decision-making and choices. This is done instead of relying on inflexible and authoritarian rules. With respectful parenting, adults model resilience and co-regulate their child’s emotions. The notion is that when done consistently, children will grow up trusting that they can run to Mom and Dad as a resource, no matter if they’re happy, sad, proud, scared, or most importantly (to me) if they’ve made a mistake.
Truthfully, it feels easiest in a difficult moment to simply shut down a whining, screaming, and overall irrational toddler. Many times I’ve thought to myself: “You can scream all you want, but we’re still cleaning up toys and it’s still time to go to bed. Right. Now.” With that being said, my heart tells me that age of reason is not a prerequisite to be treated with respect. For me, the better choice is to meet my child where she is in the moment and help her help herself as she moves through really difficult emotions and learns impulse control.
While I may not perfectly align with every single aspect of the respectful parenting doctrine, I definitely aim to use the concepts that make the most sense to me. In my short time practicing this approach, here are a few scenarios where I’ve found there is an opportunity to implement respectful parenting.
Scenario #1: Your toddler trips and falls.
The automatic response: “You’re okay!”
Sound familiar? It sure does to me. My knee-jerk reaction is to tell my daughter “You’re okay!” as a means to soothe and pacify her during a painful situation (mental or physical). While well-intentioned, I see two main problems with this statement. Firstly, it invalidates her feelings in the moment, which can hinder her ability to trust her own gut. Secondly, it can inadvertently create toxic co-dependence where she needs Mom or Dad (or someone else later in life) in order to calm down, seek help, and keep moving forward. Part of growing up is learning how to identify an emotion, move through it, and figure out the next step independently. If I get to define when my daughter is or isn’t okay, how is she expected to learn to do that for herself?
Consider instead: After calmly holding your child while she screams and cries for a minute, try saying in hushed tones: “You didn’t see the curb, did you? Sometimes it can hurt and feel scary when we fall. I’m not scared and it’s my job to keep you safe. I will keep you safe by looking at your knee to see if we need ice or a bandaid. Are you ready for me to look at it? I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Look. I’ll admit that it seems a little “extra” to spend so much time talking through it with a mini screaming banshee instead of just quickly examining your child and telling them they’re fine and to stop acting out. However, think about it from the adult perspective. If you slam your hand in the door and cry out in pain, grab some ice, and gingerly treat your injury through gritted teeth, how would you want your partner to respond? Would you want them to dismiss your experience and say, “You’re okay, get up. Shake it off and move on”? I certainly wouldn’t! It’s much more reassuring to hear, “Ouch! Are you okay? Is there anything I can get you?”
What we say to our children when they are young becomes their inner voice. By verbalizing what happened, acknowledging how it must feel, reassuring them that they’re safe, and calmly explaining the next steps, a child will learn over time how to do this for herself.
Scenario #2: Your child barely eats dinner before pushing the plate away, declaring: “I’m done!”
The automatic response: “You may leave the table after you’ve eaten what is on your plate.”
I’m a big believer in FeedingLittles‘ approach to mealtimes. As adults, it’s our responsibility to decide what to serve and the portion size, and it’s the child’s job to decide what and how much to eat. If we demand that they try everything on their plate when they say they’re not hungry, they’re robbed of the chance to recognize and follow their own body cues.
Consider instead: “This is what we’re having for dinner, and there won’t be any other food offered the rest of the day. If you’re not hungry now, you may eat from your plate before it’s time to get ready for bed. I’ll leave it on the table for you to decide. But, if you don’t want to eat anything else today, that’s okay too.”
This language enables you to hold firm boundaries (i.e., not giving in to their request for something else) while still providing space for your child to listen to his body and make the best choice for himself.
Scenario #3: After a fun morning playing at a friend’s house, your toddler throws an all-consuming, raging fit once you announce it’s time to leave.
The automatic response(s): Use gentle, physical force to remove them from the situation. (Pick them up, or hold their hand and pull them out of the scenario while they’re kicking and screaming.)
Threaten to leave them behind. (“Okay, Nelson! Mommy is leaving now. You can stay here if you want but I’m going to go.”)
No matter if you spontaneously announce the departure, or give a ten-minute advance warning, sometimes your kid is going to lose his ever-loving mind when it’s time to leave a fun activity. When acting out or misbehaving, it’s easy for adults to assume children are being manipulative to get their way. In reality, their developing minds are overwhelmed, and their emotions are so strong it is impossible for them to think clearly in the midst of the upset. Unfortunately, these forceful and fear-based responses will overwhelm them further, only prolonging the emotional outburst.
Consider instead: Unleash the crowd-favorite secret weapon: Choice!
By offering two choices that you can live with, your young child gains some semblance of control. This helps fast forward their willingness to go along with your request. In this case, you can explain why it’s time to leave, and offer two choices. The options will vary based on what is age-appropriate, but might sound something like this for my three-year-old: “We’ve had a really fun morning at your friend’s house, but now it’s time to go home and make lunch. Would you like to put on your shoes and walk to the car by yourself, or put your shoes in our bag and I’ll carry you?”
By explaining the “why” behind a request or decision, children can make sense of a situation instead of resisting as they’re forcibly removed from a situation they’re enjoying. Once children understand the reason behind a request (and have an active role in deciding how the next step will play out) they’re much more likely to go along with the plan drama-free.
Respectful parenting takes serious work. It’s much easier to bark “Because I said so!” or make promises or threats to get my child to behave the way I want her to. My belief is that practicing respectful parenting will pay off in the long run. Right now, I am a safe place for my three-year-old to express and sort through her feelings about toddler tantrums. Later, I truly hope she comes to me for help when she encounters more real-world, peer pressure situations during her teenage years and beyond.
If you’re a parent who has implemented respectful parenting over the years, I’d love to know how it’s going now with your older children. Feel free to DM me on Instagram to share your wisdom!