Thoughts on Respect
by Robyn Coburn

Some general thoughts on Respect:

Respect is a really hard concept for a little child to grasp. Or even a big one. It is so very abstract, and in terms of practical action so hard to express. An adult's concept of respect from a child is often tied up with the child being made responsible for filling an adult's need for ease or comfort. Or it is assumed that respect is manifested by obedience/compliance, or good manners, or by not being challenging to the adult in any way. These things can happen because the child feels respectful, or from other reasons that are less positive.

I think that any time we get caught up in the idea that the child is "being disrespectful" (self-focused thinking) it can be harder to get back to thinking about what they are feeling, the need is they are expressing, and how to help them either fill the need, or cope with it being impossible right now, with compassion and kindness.

How do we as parents show that we respect our children, that we are parenting respectfully? One big way is by genuinely listening to them. One way is by being honest with them about our own feelings, and telling the truth about events, or unexaggerated truthful reasons about why things can or cannot occur.

Others are by considering their desires seriously, avoiding belittling language, not expecting that they will give way to our preferences as a matter of course or habit, acknowledging that their interests and ideas are equally as important to them as our adult passions and activities are to us. It is by considering their known preferences when they aren't there to express them, truly accepting their ownership of their space and belongings, considering the common areas of the home equally theirs. There's more, I know.

But there is also something a little more intangible, I think, that is peculiar to respect in the relationship between adults and children, that goes only in one direction. I believe that respect manifests through the adult being aware and understanding of the developmental level and temperament of the child, and truly not having expectations of behavior or cognition that are beyond what the child can comfortably engage in. I mean that I guess that a child would experience being asked for more than he can give, and still feel good about himself, as disrespect from the adult. Maybe a child is capable of picking up his toys when badgered, nagged and watched, but it doesn't make him feel good about himself, or give him a sensation of his parent's love for him.

This is part of a longer post on the Unschooling Information Forum Getting Started - Questions from Parents A shift in lifestyle.


Another day on the UnschoolingDiscussion list, Robyn responded to questions about a child whose mom said he was aggressive and mean:

My ds is almost 6 yrs old. He has really become aggressive and mean. If something doesn't go the way he wants it to go he flips out verbally and physically - to me, his sister, his friends, etc...

It is hard to have a child who seems to be angry much of time. Part of it is being six—it is a developmental age where often these characteristics are exacerbated. My first suggestion is not to take the attacks personally—he is not engaging in the action "to show disrespect"; he is most likely just not able developmentally or emotionally to just calmly say "wow this is vexing" or "Gosh, I must be feeling thus-and-such emotions because that happened earlier". I'm 45 and I can't always do this!

There are days when I too would love to know exactly when age wise my respectful treatment of her will turn on the "respectful back switch" in my kid. I guess my answer is that it doesn't happen all at once.

I once wrote that the development of empathy in a child is like the tide coming in, gradually the waves get higher up the sand, but we can't consider the process done and get disappointed when the occasional really big wave is followed by an apparent retreat.

You will make yourself crazy getting involved in futile "why are you doing this?" verbalizations in the moment. Often when they are this young, and certainly when they are in the midst of their meltdown, they have no capacity, no ability to verbalize the why's. Part of my job has been a detective - looking at the clues including what I have been doing, well not "wrongly" so much as not fully attentively. These include getting overly focused on the computer (she's sleeping right now!), not noticing how long it has been since I put out food, not realizing that she needs some running and jumping time, forgeting how early she got up this morning, and recently pushing her (7.5) to wean before she was truly ready to.

The best time to talk and discover what was bothering her has always been later on in a quiet moment, especially if it is during some other quiet activity so it is not confronting. One time we spent about 15 minutes playing a balancing game jumping around on rocks while I was able to get an understanding of some events earlier. Another time when I had a kind of hunch about the weaning, I made sure to get down on the floor with her to ask her about it. See http://sandradodd.com/truck for some facilitating communication ideas.

Jayn isn't always able to logically process the emotional events that are happening to her. She sometimes needs to express herself physically, in order to become calm enough to speak rationally. Rather than let her destroy things, I give her something else to push herself against. Often that is me. I will hold her feet and give her some pressure to push against as she kicks. When we start this process, often by me putting my hands up in front of me, she will start very disorganized and wild, but then becomes increasingly controlled. Then she will say things like "now hold my feet" or want to sit on my lap and push against me. It works really well when dh participates as well. We will all three be down on the floor together, and it evolves into a great wrestle and hug session. Perhaps Sue's son would benefit from more physical interaction with his dad?

Sometimes I have "allowed destruction". Jayn sometimes threatens to pour out her drink. In the past I have jumped in to prevent it—but it was because I didn't want the trouble of cleaning up. One day I decided to let her pour and take that dumb threat out of the negotiation. She poured out the milkshake I had made her, and when that happened her face crumpled up and she cried. This changed the dynamic and we were able to talk about the things that were bothering her including sympathize with the loss of the shake. I cleaned up calmly (I have a great spot cleaning machine) and made her a new shake and all was well. Since then she has done less pouring and I have learnt that if I give her the chance to change her mind instead of grabbing the cup in a panic, she will more often decide not to pour, once I don't give the threat any power over my emotions or reactions. I mentally characterize it as "I am choosing to be the rational being at this time while she can't".

I would discourage anyone from putting an exuberant child in school just to "make him" less rowdy. I would expect rather than expending his negative energy at school, he will be more likely to come home with it all pent up from a day of having to control himself, and be even more wild. Or it could turn inward. Or the school could label him a discipline problem or want to medicate him. Has the boy seriously asked to go back to school? Does he see school as better than home? I would work on addressing that issue if it is true in his eyes.

All he says is that "everybody hates me!"— "you are always so mean to me." I can never figure out what exactly it was that I did wrong other than telling him that he cannot do something or have something at that particular time.
One of the ideas that Unschooling can help you internalize is saying yes. Minimize the "cannot" as much as you can. We try to make the default answer "yes". Is it you saying "can't" or life saying "can't"? Is he so accustomed to it being "Mom saying no" that he doesn't believe you when it really is life saying it? (Egs: The sun has to go down; if you fall off the roof you won't fly; you can only save your game at certain save points.)

Examine your reactions first—why do you want to say no? I still ask myself that question every time I feel the urge to say no. The good news is that the urge gets less over time! Go to www.sandradodd.com/yes and read Joyce's seminal article on the topic.

Children speak in code. When he says these mean sounding things, he is not really believing the literal truth of them—this is where "don't take it personally" comes in. What he is expressing might be code for something like "I have no power" or "I have a resentment" or "I'm lonely" or "I'm hungry" or "I'm scared of my own strong feelings" or "I'm disappointed".

One of the most useful things I do is keep small posters of useful sayings and strategies taped where I see them a lot. I guess I would be a visual learner! These include quotes by the people I admire on these lists, and the question "What loving action can I take?" which is to remind me to respond lovingly to Jayn's angry outbursts. Often a hug is the first thing that she needs, even though it is the last thing I feel like—yet it helps me too (not all kids want to be hugged when mad, but Jayn often does). I have a list that is taped to my computer of my/our current parenting growth points - the things I need to work on at the moment. This is it:

*Get up at once and not say any version of "Wait a minute".
*Use only positive words - "When X then Y"....which ties in to:
*Start the sentence with "I will" NOT "I can't" (or "you can't").
*Agree to nurse immediately without complaint.
*Smile, or at least shrug, when something spills. [My face was expressing more annoyance than I ever felt at accidents - betraying my good intentions - so I got proactive instead.]
*Clean up with joy. [Again I would get distracted and my body language would express impatience that I didn't know I was feeling].
*Play dolls.
*If Jayn hits or kicks, give her a hug.
That is my list, my personal scripts. I would encourage people to develop their own scripts, focusing on the positive changes that they want to make *in themselves* rather than trying to change the other person, in this case their child.

A wonderful publication is Naomi Aldort's recent book "Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves". One of the themes is empowering children. She also has a very helpful and specific strategy for helping kids in meltdown called "Communication S.A.L.V.E." She is an Unschooler herself which helps a lot. Most parenting books have school success as one of the major criteria of happiness, so it is nice to have a book without that paradigm clouding the scenery.

Finally many parents of energetic kids have found that a good martial arts program has been really helpful and empowering for them. It seems ironic that the best solution for a child who is using disruption as a tool for gaining power is empowerment, but there it is. This is what works according to the numerous stories here in the archives and on other lists - discerning the true need and helping the child fulfil it positively.

Robyn L. Coburn


More Robyn Coburn * more on respect * more on parenting