Whether it’s shaming, shouting, bribing, ignoring, threatening, over-powering, punishing, hitting, or spanking. The list of disrespectful behaviour towards our children is long and miserable. Easily parents and other adults find a good reason why a child deserves a little smack, some time-out on the naughty step to get him thinking, or the taking-away of treats and rights. Because the child misbehaved, didn’t co-operate or just didn’t listen – to cut it short: ‘the child was naughty’.
As a parent of three young children I can relate to stressful situations. This afternoon we wanted to go to a playgroup, the car was in the garage and we had to take the bus, which only goes every hour. My children took ages to find their shoes, coats, a favourite cuddly toy, a snack, and so on. For twenty minutes I had been running around, calling and reminding them. With rolling eyes, increased pulse rate and mumbling under my breath, I tried to help them. Then, finally, when I thought we really could make a move the youngest shouted ‘I need a wee’. In less than a minute we solved that problem (yes, we skipped washing hands due to time shortage), ran to the bus stop, arrived with our tongues hanging out, just to see the red rear lights of our bus driving off. The knock-on effect felt big: we missed the bus, the playgroup, seeing our friends and, of course, the post office, where a parcel is waiting for us, would be closed later on.
My children wailed, complained and moaned. To make my situation worse it started raining. I could feel that big wave of annoyance and irritation rising inside me. Just an eye blink and I could explode. A tirade of shouting and swearing was about to be poured onto my kids: “Because you didn’t hurry up when I told you. Because you couldn’t find your shoes (and didn’t put them by the door in the first place after you used them last time). Because you needed a wee. Because… because, damn, it’s just your fault. That’s why we missed the bus, the playgroup, seeing our friends, the post office. And, on top of that, we’re dripping wet. I’m not taking you on the bus again. When we get home you can go to your bedroom and stay there for the rest of the day. Serves you right!” People passing by and seeing the scene would probably turn away feeling embarrassed or nod their heads in agreement with me.
I did say, I could explode. And here’s my choice: I, the parent, can choose to control myself and respond differently than just described. Or I can blow.
You see, situations like those do happen every day thousands of times – in our family homes, on playgrounds, in public places, yes, even in schools, kindergartens or playgroups. Adults’ overreactions towards children is a culturally accepted concept. Unfortunately. Would I shout, threaten or hit my neighbour, colleague or partner, I could end up – rightly – in court for assault. Doing the same stuff to my kid would come under the term ‘disciplining’. I’m showing him what’s right and wrong, I’m setting boundaries, I’m teaching her a lesson. Right? Bonkers.
I’m not teaching, I’m not setting a boundary, I’m not changing any behaviour. Instead I’m threatening, over-powering, shaming and punishing. The lesson my child will learn here? Not to trust me. To be afraid of me and my responses. He will learn to supress certain feelings and try to manipulate himself and situations to avoid my hurting reactions. He will feel disconnected, unloved, unworthy, a bad person. Next time my child might shout back at me or (if that’s yet too scary) let it out on his sibling or a younger, equally helpless child.
What we need to understand is the simple fact that our children are not naughty. Their plan is not to annoy or irritate us. They are doing the best they can, with their current ability. We need to understand that we are their models. They will copy us and our behaviour. If we show disrespect towards them, then we shouldn’t be surprised at all if this disrespect comes back like a boomerang. But if we choose to show understanding, empathy and unconditional love, then we will see co-operation, reassurance and trust. Not in every situation, but overall.
The most important thing one can hope for in parenting is to establish a loving relationship with one’s child – this goes above everything else. In every moment of the day ask yourself: is this actually connecting us further or disconnecting us? If you think, e.g. table manners is a must, then ask yourself: at what price am I trying to force my ideas on my child here? (Doesn’t mean that your ideas are wrong, just that your way of achieving your goal might not be right at this moment in time).
Deeply rooted in our culture and society is an understanding that we can treat our children as we wish. Often this behaviour is just a response from our own upbringing. If we were hit or otherwise mistreated by our parents, then – even if we made that promise to try better than our parents – we are likely to repeat similar patterns. Because that’s what we’ve learned and copied many times. So, you misbehaved as a kid and your Mum took your ice cream away? There is a good chance that you punish your own child for not tidying his bedroom with a similar threat. We are repeating our stories, past wounds are still hurting our inner child. Often we watch ourselves act helplessly wondering why on earth we are behaving as we never wanted to.
Pretty grim eh? The good news is you can change that. It is hard, as it is so ingrained in us, often we unconsciously choose to repeat this learned behaviour. Be patient and kind to yourself while in the process of ‘re-programing’ yourself. Take time to reflect on your thoughts and actions and rather than beating yourself up for failing to change your behaviour today, think about what will help you to avoid that stressful situation (in which you might overreact) next time. Any behaviour can be learned and un-learned.
The second major problem of today’s society is TIME. Most of us feel under permanent pressure: family, work, children, household, money, bills, friends – and in between, dozens of digital gadgets to distract us. Our lives have become like a 24/7 non-stop show. Being ‘on call’ all the time shift priorities from the really important things – like our children and how we treat them – to less important gossip, comments or feedback on social media and the like.
Take a look around you and observe parents and their children. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the playground, the bus stop or in a café: the grown-ups are glued to their screens while the kids entertain themselves.
We need to change our life styles. We need to change the way we treat our children. We need to show respect, empathy and love. Now.
Let’s go back to my example where the kids and I run to catch the bus. What could I, the parent, have done differently to avoid the whole situation in its first place? To put it simply, it’s all about time again. I could have started preparing for the outing earlier. I know my children need longer putting their shoes and clothes on. They can’t find their stuff? Well, I can help. My 8-year-old normally does his shoe laces by himself but he has days where he wants me to do it. Not because he’s lazy, because he’s looking for connection. It doesn’t hurt me to do it for him once in a while. OK, but even though we could still have missed the bus, right? Yes. And the news is, it has happened to me. Not only once. Still, I can decide whether to lose the plot and shout and blame – or to pause, breathe in and out, reflect and to offer a plan B. Missed the bus? I wonder what else we can do today as we won’t be able to meet with our friends? Shall we call some other friends and invite them to us for games? And, yes, the parcel at the post office can wait until tomorrow. It’s not the end of the world. – I appreciate that this needs training and practise. For me as well.
And now, let’s go further. Saying that we need a cultural change is good and easy. But we need to make the right steps. All of us – you and I. To challenge mainstream patterns, we need some ideas to help us changing the current climate of disrespect:
- Awareness starts with myself. I need to reflect on my own childhood and find out how my parents treated me. I’m not doing this to judge them. I’m doing this to learn and to see whether my responses are similar. I can write down my emotions and thoughts and discuss them with my partner, a friend or a specialist to overcome past issues.
- How do I talk to children? Am I polite? Do I sound threatening or too loud? Would I choose the same language with my partner, friends, colleagues, a stranger in the street? My kids deserve the same respect I am expecting from everyone else.
- I feel helpless, confused and angry in a tense moment. I acknowledge my feelings, take some deep breaths, if possible I leave the situation for a moment, or I communicate to my children that I need a short break. I take that time to reflect what other options are available.
- I sit down with my partner or a good friend and talk about my parenting and the challenges I face. I don’t expect anyone to fix my problems but someone who can listen to me and reflect with me.
- I am taking time for my children without any distractions. Phones, laptops and gadgets are turned off or not in the same room when I spend time with them.
- I apologise to my and other children. Yes, I make mistakes and I acknowledge that. Apologies are a good way to reconnect and to show authenticity.
- When I plan for an activity, outing, holiday etc. I’ll include my children’s thoughts. I’ll invite them so they can voice their needs and wishes.
- When I set a boundary, I’ll explain to my child why. E.g. to your 3-year-old: I need to hold your hand right now because it’s a busy road and we can’t run around.
- I can always make a quick assessment in my head: how much harm would be done if I ask x, y or z? E.g. the room is untidy but my child is absorbed by playing. Do I really need a tidy room now or could it wait for the moment?
- No bribes, threats, punishments, violence, shaming, ignoring – ever!
Finally, I’m asking for one big thing. This one sounds very easy to be done but I know we as society have still a long way to go. We need to start treating children with equal respect and empathy as all other human beings. Let’s start today.