“In school I learned that to get respect, you need to give respect! My mom shows me no respect, so why should I respect her?”
The problem with this complaint is that he’s right. That is the way the world works. Those who give respect, receive respect; those who don’t give, don’t receive. It’s difficult to explain the nuances of interpersonal relationships to children. They can’t understand what obligates children, employees, and students to listen to parents, employers, and teachers.
I’m the parent! Kibud Av Ve’Aim! I’m older than you so I know more! You’re just a child, you don’t know anything! You’re so Chutzpadik! So disrespectful!
All of the above are feeble attempts to communicate a subtle message. A message that we, as adults, clearly struggle to properly articulate, as shown by the familiar comments listed. Nevertheless, it appears we believe we should be respected, no matter how we treat our children.
How can we rationalize this? Should we explain that it is because the world runs better when adults are in charge? If that’s the case, why can’t we remain in charge and still show respect to our children?
Perhaps the need for respect comes from the Torah? Hashem clearly instructs us to honor our mother and father. On the other hand, it is our children’s responsibility to follow that mitzvah, not ours to make them keep it. Just like any mitzvah, our responsibility is to teach, encourage in a calculated manner, and model proper performance of the mitzvah. The tantrum that ensues when a parent doesn’t feel respected doesn’t fit into these guidelines.
So, where does our obsession with respect come from? It seems virtuous, but we must be introspective when we appear overly zealous, when our passion for ‘the right thing’ suddenly spikes in specific scenarios. In such circumstances, we must push ourselves to be intellectually honest and search our unconscious motivations.
I believe the answer is simple. Disrespect is hurtful and annoying. We don’t like it. Our fervor towards disrespectful behavior hides behind the righteous motivation of a healthy power hierarchy, but is fueled primarily by a disdain towards being treated in a less than preferable manner.
Our lives are hectic, and the last thing we need is little opinions running around hindering our plans. Our children’s feelings and needs are often inconvenient. It is understandable that we get annoyed. We try our best to remain regulated and composed, but when we bottle up our feelings of frustration, eventually, something’s got to give. That something is usually our concern for their feelings. We lash out, ignoring the impact we have on them.
We also feel hurt when our children are disrespectful. We may not like to admit it, but we are fragile creatures. Our self-esteem is commonly dependent on the opinions of others. You may find yourself scoffing at this thought, “Oh, yea! Like I care what a little kid thinks about me!” But I implore you to search yourself a little deeper. Doesn’t it feel nice when your little boy says, “Wow Daddy! You’re so strong!” Or, “Mommy, you are such a nice Mommy!” It may be uncomfortable to admit, but we want others, especially our children, to think the world of us. Disrespect sends the opposite message. When disrespected, parents may feel as though their inner value as an individual is being challenged, and again, we lash out.
“So now what? Show respect to my children as if they’re equals? There is truth to a healthy power differential! Isn’t there?”
Yes, absolutely! If William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ taught us anything, it is that children should not be left completely to their own devices.
According to the US National Library of Medicine’s ‘National Institute of Health’, the adolescent brain continues to mature well into the 20s. Children, and adolescents, are lacking maturity in their judgment. They have little experience with the ‘real world’, they don’t understand money, relationships, love, or how anyone could ever afford to buy a house! “Aren’t they like fifty thousand dollars?!”
We know about their cognitive limitations. It keeps us up at night. What kind of trouble are our children getting into? Whether they be elementary age and struggling with staying seated during Morah-time, or teenagers being pulled toward the various vices the world has to offer, we worry. So no, we absolutely cannot treat children like equals with regard to authority. We are in charge. We are their parents. They need us. They need us to be strong. They need us to set boundaries. They need us to set the example of what’s right and wrong. They need to know that no matter how hard they push or pull on those boundaries, we will stay strong and keep to our values and beliefs with conviction.
However, we can and must treat them with the utmost respect. Not the type of respect that resembles reverence, but the simple respect that should be granted every individual. The right to have feelings. The right to have opinions. The right to be heard and feel as though one’s opinion is valued. The right to make mistakes. The right to have a bad day. The right to need extra love and attention on a given day.
This requires tremendous composure and maturity. It is very difficult to navigate the hurt feelings that accompany disrespect. It requires us to step above the disapproval of our children and not be derailed by their emotional dysregulation.
It is very difficult to show respect to a child when they are irritating us. It requires perspective in the moment. It requires us to step outside of ourselves and realize we are the adults; to pull ourselves together and respond in the best interest of the child.
It may help to imagine how we would feel in their situation. Imagine being told what to do, being shushed when you have something to say, and being called a cry baby in attempt to subdue your emotions. Imagine a family discussion about where to go for dinner, and not understanding why yours is the only opinion not being considered. Imagine being shoved in a car for a road trip against your will. We don’t like being invalidated, belittled, or ignored; neither do they. We don’t like being disrespected; neither do they. It’s sometimes as simple as putting yourself in their shoes. After all, kids are people too.