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Basics of respectful parenting

Joanne Baum, PhD., LCSW, has been a therapist, parenting coach, educator, and writer for over 30 years. Her latest book, Got the Baby Where's the Manual?!? won the 2007 IPPY Gold Medal in Parenting. You can find more information on her w...

What I call "respectful parenting" developed over many years of doing therapy with adults who had grown up with "old style" parents all across the country, from all walks of life. They had all grown up with fairly low self-esteems. They didn't know how to think things through well. They didn't know how to problem solve very well. They didn't know how to re-assess a situation and change course mid stream. They hated to be wrong. When they were wrong or made mistakes, they had lots of negative dialogue going on in their heads that was reminiscent of what their parents used to tell them when they were younger. When we looked at how they were parented, certain common themes revealed themselves.
Because I said so?
Most people parented between the 1940s and 1980s were raised with parents who answered most why questions with "Because I said so" or "Because I'm your mother/father." Old-style parents didn't see a need to explain what their reasoning was nor did they bother to explain how they had come to their conclusions to their children. Things were the way they were because they were. Thus children were largely told what to do, how to do it, and if they didn't comply they were punished. They weren't taught by example how to reason things through and decide between a few options what might work best and why it might work best.

In addition, when these adults made mistakes as children, they were made to feel ashamed by such powerful one-liners as, "What's the matter with you?" What were you thinking?" "What's wrong with you?" and "How could you be so stupid?"

Mistakes create learning opportunities
In respectful parenting, mistakes are considered marvelous opportunities to: a) communicate with your child; b) share ideas; and c) learn from a life experience. You can respectfully reconsider a mistake with a child by using the metaphor of a movie. "Okay what just happened was take one. Now let's talk about "take two." If you were given an opportunity to do that again what would you like to change about how you reacted or dealt with the situation. What do you think would result in a more ___________ ending?" Explore your child's ideas. Play his new idea out as a "take two" like in movies by looking at what might happen if you tried the new plan instead of the old plan.

Then you can ask your child if he's interested in an idea of "take two" or "take three" that you thought of. After fully exploring your child's alternative plans and how they could work differently/better, he's very likely to be interested in what you might suggest. By doing that, you're avoiding a didactic lecture from a know-it-all-type parent and you're helping your child learn how to problem solve, reassess a situation, and feel respected and loved. Respectful parenting can build all kinds of necessary life skills including a good self-esteem.

Another alternative is to sit down with your child and say, "Okay, let's talk about what happened and what you want to do differently next time so that doesn't happen again." After that kind of open discussion without judgment your child has learned and is free to do it differently because shame will not block his better judgment. You can also ask your child, after hearing her input if she wants to hear your perspective on the situation. After listening carefully to your child, your child will be much more willing to listen to you. And by asking your child if she's interested in hearing your input, you're inviting her involvement rather than lecturing her. It becomes a kindly interaction rather than an argument or didactic lecture where your child turns off to the words after the third sentence.

Sharing ideas
A parent using respectful parenting techniques listens carefully to a child, especially when a child provides a well thought through explanation. After listening, a parent can respect the child's input by reconsidering his/her own position in view of what the child has just suggested. The parent has to carefully consider which possibility makes more sense: the parent's or the child's perspective. If it's a toss up, it's important to alternate deciding on your way or your child's way. Later, you can both talk about the merits of each plan and its "consequences." Your child will feel good when she sees you adopting her ideas.

What a freeing concept, that a parent doesn't have to be under pressure to have all the answers. You can consider your child's ideas and when they're different than yours but valid , use them and thank your child. If the ideas don't turn out well once they're put into action, then you can both look at what happened and learn from it. You can talk things through without judgment. You can say, "Now I thought that was a good idea too. Let's look at why it didn't work as well as we thought it would. Was it the idea itself that needed some modifying or was it the circumstances surrounding the situation this time that made it work out that way?"

It's important to have the same kinds of discussions when your ideas don't pan out in ways you thought they would. What better lessons and skills can you teach a child than how to look at something, without shame and say, "How can I do that better next time?" And then actually use the better ideas next time and watch for better results.

So much of what I see in my office when teens or adults have low self-esteems stems from the kinds of shame-based messages their parents told them when they were little and made mistakes. You know the kinds of messages directly implying that you were stupid to be thinking that way�instead of getting a non-judgmental message like, "Please tell me what you thought would happen." And then after you hear your child's explanation say something like, "I can see why you thought that based on what you were thinking. And you just gave me a logical explanation that seemed to make sense, but it didn't work out that way did it? Are you willing to look at what you might have left out of your thinking and how we might be able to have you look at this differently next time? Because if we think of some more options, then you'll have more possibilities for how to react in that kind of situation, next time it arises."

That's sharing ideas in a respectful learning process. When you can respond like that, it allows your child to feel good about her thinking. Over time, she's more apt to use that process when you're not around and she needs to make her own wise choices.

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