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Parenting: Respect Starts at Home

Do your children respect you and themselves?

NFL star Terrell Owens doing his outrageous touchdown dances. American Idol's Simon Cowell humiliating well-intentioned-if untalented-singers. Hip-hop artists who demean women in their music. There is no shortage of forces in popular culture that resist your efforts to teach your children the value of respect. It can sometimes feel like you're being overwhelmed by an onslaught of disrespect.

Many parents I hear from feel that they are losing this battle for respect and, with it, their ability to positively influence their children. Many children I talk to don't feel that their parents are relevant anymore. Well, let me say this loud and clear: You better be relevant in this toxic culture in which we live or your children are doomed. However discouraged you may feel, you must continue to fight the good fight for the sake of your children. And this battle begins with respect!

The reality is that you have a much greater impact on your children than you think, but only if you maintain their respect. For example, a recent study reported that teenagers are less likely to begin smoking if their parents express disapproval. Additionally, the disapproval diminished the effect that peer pressure had on whether they took up smoking. Similar findings were found on the influence of parents on teenagers' use of alcohol and drugs.

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Thankfully, you're not alone. Schools and houses of worship, among others, also aim to instill respect in your children. But, like most of child rearing, respect starts at home. If you can teach your children to respect you, themselves, and others when they are young, they're likely to carry that value with them as they enter the real world and use it to become successful, happy, and contributing adults.

Respect For You, Respect For Themselves

When you earn your children's respect, they also learn to respect themselves. Respect is so important because, without it, children can't value themselves or others. Children who don't respect themselves are more likely to drink alcohol, take drugs, have sex, and treat others badly. Children who lack self-respect simply don't care about themselves or anyone else.

Children who have self-respect treat themselves well. They're less likely to do harmful things, they make good choices, and they tend to act in ways that are in their own best interests. The benefits of teaching the value of respect early include children who:

  • Are happier, more successful, and have healthier relationships.
  • Are unselfish, considerate, caring, and generous.
  • Respect you and other influential adults.
  • Honor reasonable boundaries placed on them.
  • Are more likely to trust you and abide by your directives.

Contrary to the assertions of popular culture, when you act like parents you engender healthy respect, encourage caring relationships, and foster their positive development.

Be the Parent

Popular culture tells you that to be a good parent, you should be friends with your children. You should hang out with them, tell them anything, and treat them as equals. But when you're friends with your children, you actually detract from the strength of your relationship and surrender your influence over them. When you become friends with your children, you give up your unique relationship with them because they have many friends, but they have only two (hopefully) parents.

Let me make this very clear: being you child's friend is NOT YOUR JOB! You cannot and should not be friends with your children. If you're friends with your children, you are hurting them.

Why, you ask, is it such a bad thing to be friends with your children? It's simple. Friends have equal power with their peers, yet parents and children should not share power. Parents have to do things that friends wouldn't do. Friends don't tell friends to do their homework and friends don't tell friends when it's time to go to bed.

How many times have you said, "Which part of ‘no' don't you understand?" Well, apparently many children in America don't understand any part of "no." A recent survey by the Center for a New American Dream reports that when parents say no to a request, 60 percent of children keep nagging, on average, nine times after being told no. Ten percent of 12- and 13-year-olds even said that they nag their parents over 50 times. Even more troubling, 55 percent of the children surveyed said that their parents usually gave in. When you're friends with your children, they won't respect your power to say "No!" and mean it.

Your children don't want to be friends with you. When I ask children how they feel about being friends with their parents, they look at me as if I'm from another planet. It's just not in their mindset to be friends with their parents. You're their parents! Parents aren't supposed to be cool, phat, or hip (and if you use any of those words, you're definitely not). When you try to act like your children's friends, you come across, as one girl once told me, "Oh so 20th century! Acting cool makes them look so dorky and desperate." And despite their frequent protestations, your children want you to be their parents. So remember, being friends was definitely not your children's idea.

Your children also need you to be their parents. Though children in the 21st century often look, dress, act, and talk like adults long before they actually are, the reality is that until they reach their teens, they are still children in many ways-inexperienced, unskilled, immature-and living in a world that has never been more threatening. Your children need someone in their lives-YOU!-who is more powerful than they and who can protect them from the big, scary world (of course, they would never admit that to you!). When children are the most powerful people in their families, they live in a constant state of fear because they're not ready to take on the world alone. When you're the parent, you can provide them with a safe haven-with direction, support, and boundaries-from which to explore the world. You show your children that you're there to protect them when needed.

When parents want to be friends with their children, they aren't doing it because it's best for their children. These parents are often unfulfilled in their own lives, lonely, and aren't getting their needs met from adults. They share inappropriate information with their children (e.g., about their relationship with their spouse) and place the onus of their happiness on their children's shoulders. Because of their love for their parents, most children will accept this role because they feel guilty if they didn't give their parents that support. Lacking the experience and maturity to handle this responsibility, however, children slowly crumble under its weight. In time, their love, empathy, and compassion for their parents can turn to anger and resentment at having to assume a role that they neither asked for nor are capable of handling.

Here's a simple rule: parents should have adult friendships and children should have peer friendships. If your needs for intimacy and support are appropriately satisfied by other adults, you won't need to turn to your children to have those needs met. Similarly, your children should have age-appropriate relationships with peers, with whom they can share and gain support from. Freedom from the responsibility of being friends enables you to fulfill your real parental responsibilities and allows your children to be children.

Here are some keys to earning respect and maintaining healthy boundaries:

  • Be aware of what your needs are and by whom they are being met.
  • Be careful that your children aren't being forced to unreasonably sacrifice time with peers to be with you.
  • Never use guilt to force them to choose you over their friends.
  • Monitor what you talk to them about and be sure the content of your conversations is appropriate for an adult speaking to a child.

Gaining your children's respect doesn't mean that you have to be a harsh, restrictive ogre. You can be loving, fun, and supportive. But it also means being tough, though being tough doesn't mean being unkind, angry, or controlling. Being tough means knowing what is best for your children and doing what is in their best interests-whether they like it or not. Being their parent also doesn't mean that they won't care for you any less. In fact, they will love and respect you more because you are doing what is best for them.

Not being your children's friend when they're young doesn't preclude you from ever being their friend. Once your children become adults, then you can be friends with them. At that point, you'll want to be friends with your children because you'll want to live with them when you get old!

Maintain Power

The depictions of parent-child relationships in popular culture aim to undermine respect. Think about how Bart Simpson treated his father, Homer, on The Simpsons. Or how Ed Bundy was treated by his children on Married with Children. Many of the situation comedies on network television portray fathers in particular as buffoons who are unworthy of respect and easily manipulated by their children.

Teaching your children respect involves maintaining power over them. It means being firm and adhering to your values in the face of popular culture's persistent attempts to sway you. It also means being consistent. You must send clear messages about respect, your expectations, and the limits you set for your children. If you give in to nagging or adjust your message when it's convenient, you're detracting from your ability to earn their respect and exert influence over them.

Maintaining power communicates to your children that you're in charge and asking for respect, that you expect them to live by your family's values, and that you're ready to enforce the expectations and limits you set for them. Maintaining power doesn't mean being utterly dictatorial, particularly as your children move into adolescence. It means striking a balance between being completely permissive and overly strict. Parents who strike this balance allow their children to contribute to family decisions about limits, but ultimately decide for themselves what limits are reasonable. They establish unambiguous expectations and make clear to their children the consequences of transgressions. Finally, these parents follow through firmly and consistently when their children violate the limits.

Maintaining power also involves being flexible, which communicates your respect for your children. You can foster this flexibility by talking to your children about your expectations and why you set limits you on them. Engaging them in a discussion of your resolve also gives them the opportunity to convince you to be more flexible. Flexibility doesn't mean giving in to your children. It means being open to changing the expectations and limits you place on them. If your children can persuade you through their words or actions that they deserve more latitude, you should show flexibility and give them more rein. Of course, you have to make sure that they act responsibly with the new-found respect. If they do, you may consider giving them more independence as a reward for your earned respect for them.

If they violate your respect you've given them, they must pay for it in a way that will help them clearly see the connection between the respect you showed them and how they broke your trust. Your children need to understand that with earned respect comes responsibility and that without being responsible, the respect-and the independence-will be lost. Invariably, your children will abuse your trust periodically; that's just part of being young. What's important is that they learn from these experiences so they don't continue to abuse the freedom you give them and misuse the respect they have earned.

 

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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