Kids are People Too: How Co-Parents Can Use a Respectful Approach to Nurture Their Child’s Development

September 28th


Kids are people too, but do we always treat them as such? As parents, we become so wrapped up in molding our children to become high-functioning, contributing members of society in the future that we can lose sight of where they are today. We expect them to view things through our adult lens while also putting aside their feelings, wants, and needs in ways that most grown-ups find difficult. This can create frustration and conflict in our relationships. But how do we guide them down the right path while still allowing them their humanity? This week, we’re exploring how an empathetic approach toward parenting can transform your connection and nurture your child’s development. Read on to find out what being respectful of your child means, and what it doesn’t!

The Gist

Children are born with the same capacity for emotions as adults, without the knowledge or experience to understand them. Parents may see them display very grown-up feelings and expect them to handle them in grown-up ways- but they haven’t learned to do that yet.

Sometimes parents behave toward their children in ways they wouldn’t appreciate as adults. They may belittle their feelings, violate their boundaries, or ask them to follow rules they can’t follow themselves.

Respectful parenting means accepting the idea that children have the right to their own thoughts, feelings, and needs. It means allowing them to share their opinions freely and giving them opportunities to make choices.

An Adult World, Through the Eyes of a Child:

So often, children are punished for being human. They are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad attitudes, disrespectful tones, or bad days. Yet we, as adults, have them all the time. None of us are perfect! We must stop holding our children to a higher standard than we can attain ourselves.

Think about the daily challenges you face as an adult. Perhaps you got up this morning, and you aren’t feeling very well, but you’re a grown-up, so you must keep moving forward. You’re running late to work and get stuck in traffic. Your boss interrupts you in the middle of an important project you were working on only to ask you to pivot and to do something else entirely. At lunchtime, you’ve been trying to kick your energy drink habit but it’s just too much right now so you grab one anyway. You should go straight home after you clock out and take care of necessary household chores, but you just don’t want to, so you call your best friend to meet up for dinner. But turns out he/she made plans with another of your friends and didn’t include you.

Most of us can relate to these frustrations. We can accept that we’d be in a bad mood afterward. But now, think about a similar chain of events from a child's perspective.

Perhaps you’re a teething toddler, or a teenager whose hormones are shifting, and didn’t sleep well. Your parents wake you up to go to daycare or school for more hours than some people spend at work in a day. You’re told to “hurry up.” You’re in the middle of discovering something really cool in block center or science lab when you’re suddenly told, “stop what you’re doing, free play is cut short today for an assembly” You start sucking your thumb or biting your nails but are told to “Stop doing that, I’ve told you so many times already!” You get home and start watching your favorite movie on your tablet, only to have your mom or dad yell, “Turn that off, you have too much screen time, go clean your room.” Your sibling, meanwhile, got to stay home today because she’s sick and she and your parent have been cuddling on the couch without you.

Shouldn’t kids have to ultimately learn to “get over it” and do what needs to be done? That’s what we adults have to do, right? While that may ultimately be true, there are some key differences between these two scenarios that impact how we respond to them. They are:

1. All the feelings, without the wisdom:
Research shows that humans have the capacity for a full range of emotions from birth, but the ability to understand those emotions develops over time (Read more here and here). Children can feel all the same things we do, but they lack the life experience to make sense of what’s happening. Furthermore, the part of the brain responsible for processing information and making logical choices does not reach full maturity until age 25!!! Couple that with the influence of hormones during puberty and adolescence, and you have a confusing mix on your hands! This discrepancy can help explain why their emotional and behavioral responses seem out of control or not appropriate to the situation.
2. Same expectations, without any of the control:
Children are often held to rules and timetables set for them by the adults in their lives. At home, your children conform to the schedule you’ve decided on, and at school they must follow what their teachers tell them to do. It’s natural, and often necessary, for older and wiser grownups to take charge and make decisions on behalf of their kids. However, imagine what it feels like to be asked to constantly comply with someone else’s ideas or wishes. If you put yourself in your child’s shoes, you can understand how this lack of control can be unsettling and even frustrating at times.
3. Do as I say, not as I do:
Your words may say one thing, but your modeling says another. For example, we may encourage our children to “Be patient!” yet honk our horn at every car that we pass. Frequently, we parents expect kids to comply with a set of rules that we can’t adhere to ourselves.
4. Change is hard.
Old habits are hard to break, and sometimes the most harmful behaviors are the most difficult of all. Many of us can relate to this- whether it’s a failed New Year’s resolution or failed attempt to quit a serious addiction of some kind. We may cut ourselves, or other adults, some slack when trying to correct a negative pattern but not offer the same courtesy to our children and expect them to change immediately.
5. Little kids, big problems.
Have you ever found yourself saying, “You think you have it hard now? Come talk to me when you’re a grownup, then you’ll really have something to complain about!” The issues that upset our children may seem trivial or minor compared to our “adult” troubles, but saying so belittles their feelings. From their perspective, their problems are in fact very real.
6. Boundary violations:
No one likes having their boundaries violated (physically or otherwise). In most settings, it would be unheard of for an adult to touch someone’s body or things or invade their space without their consent. But kids must deal with this all the time! We may barge into their rooms without knocking, or pick them up to change their diapers, or move their prized possessions (like the lego tower they spent hours building, for example) without asking.

Respectful Parenting for Co-Parents:

If you’re asking yourself what this all means for you as a co-parent, we’re here to tell you: everything! Children whose parents have separated or divorced must endure many life changes, usually without their consent. You and your ex may have experienced many emotions throughout your relationship and separation, and your children are along for the ride. They may be processing their feelings and yours, and their struggle may show through in their behavior.

Custody arrangements may also force kids into new schedules and new living situations. They may have less time with one parent or have to adjust to shuttling back and forth between households. They may also have to make space (figuratively or literally) for new people if they move in with others due to the separation/divorce. In other words, their day-to-day life has been turned upside down, and they often find themselves in the middle.

Mother Daughter Relationship

This depiction of life through the eyes of children in co-parenting families doesn’t cover everything, as each individual is unique and experiences parental separation or divorce uniquely. It also doesn’t intend to blame co-parents. But it does underscore the importance of treating children with love and respect, throughout the separation and beyond. Your child needs to feel seen and heard by you and to have you model appropriate behavior and coping mechanisms to help them weather these major changes.

Becoming a Respectful Parent:

Shifting to a respectful parenting approach doesn’t take much; it’s more intuitive than you think!

  • Get in touch with your inner child and reflect on what you liked and disliked about your upbringing.

    You may be repeating your caregivers’ patterns without even realizing it, so ask yourself how their approach made you feel. What sort of relationship would you like to have with your child in the future?

  • Simply step into your child’s shoes and examine things through her eyes.

    Or, even better, ask her to tell you about it in her own words! Allow her to share her feelings (both positive and negative) and be open to hearing feedback about what you could be doing differently. Questions like, “What makes you feel most loved?” and “Is there anything I do that makes you feel uncomfortable or hurt?” can get the conversation started.

  • Give your child a voice.

    Provide him the freedom to respectfully express his opinion along with opportunities to exercise his power to choose. Start with small decisions, and move on to bigger ones as your child gets older. For example, you could begin with letting your child choose the color of his bedroom, or his outfits, and then move to the color of his hair, or where you go on vacation.

  • Model respectful language and tone in your own speech.

    Do your best to refrain from yelling, as it rarely helps. Use polite language with your child; hearing you utter these phrases teaches them manners better than a lecture on saying “please” and “thank you” ever could. Furthermore, be mindful of how you talk about or approach other people and situations, as your children are always listening. If you frequently badmouth others behind their backs, your child might worry that you’ll do the same with her, or could repeat what you say. Both positivity and negativity are contagious- so choose wisely!

  • Own up to your mistakes. Your child doesn’t need you to be perfect; if you were, you might instill in them pressure to always get things right or set unrealistic expectations about human behavior. However, the unwillingness to apologize is an error you can avoid. When you’ve made a mistake, admit to it and make amends. This might look like “I’m sorry I raised my voice with you; I know it scared you. I was frustrated and got too loud, I will work on controlling my feelings better so I can talk kindly to you.” In this way, you can turn negative moments into learning opportunities and teach your child the value in making mistakes and taking responsibility.

  • Be mindful of your child’s personal boundaries. Physical affection between parents and children is essential for their wellbeing, and frequently occurs naturally and spontaneously- especially during the early years. However, if you want your child to learn the importance of consent and respecting others, you will need to model this by respecting his space. Ask permission to touch or get close to them; for example, rather than grabbing a toddler to change a diaper, tell them what you’re doing first. Or before you reach over and adjust your child’s drooping pants, say, “Can I help you with this?” Refrain from forcing children to give hugs, even to loved ones. As soon as you can, begin teaching the concept of privacy, and practice what you preach. For example, knock before entering their bedrooms, ask if it’s ok before you dive into their play, etc.

Correcting Common Misconceptions about Respect in Parenting

The respectful, positive parenting style we have described here has gained popularity because (a) scientific evidence through years of research supports its effectiveness and (b) it brings greater happiness and satisfaction to parents and children. However, whenever something generates lots of attention from the public, there’s bound to be a backlash. Some people have spoken out against this approach because they mistakenly believe it to promote lax discipline. They think it allows kids to rule the roost and requires parents to cater to their every whim without ever correcting them. But this does not fit the description of “respect!”

In truth, being a respectful parent requires boundary-setting, taking charge, and redirecting children’s negative actions. Parents who treat their children this way still do all those things, while respecting their children’s right to have feelings, thoughts, and physical autonomy.

Respectful parenting does not:
  • Let children do whatever they want or allow them to make all the decisions
  • Require parents to be perfect and serene at all times
  • Ignore negative behavior
  • Seek to make kids “happy” all the time
  • Belittle kids by making them feel their feelings are less important
  • Disregard boundary setting and privacy

Be a Respectful Parent, Raise a Respectful Adult:

Respectul parents raise children who become respectful adults. As you struggle through the inevitable emotional rollercoaster of co-parenting, remember that your child is a living, breathing being who has feelings, hopes, and dreams as well. Treat your child with the same respect you would any other human, and you’ll find that as you age, you’ll both weather the ups and downs of life with your dignity and relationship intact.

Got problems? All co-parents do! Next week, we’ll be tackling the most common co-parenting conflicts and ways to solve them. Stay tuned!

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By Koh-Parenting Services LLC

One Comment

  1. […] and if they don’t get it, how can we expect them to extend it to others? Our previous post Kids Are People Too: How Co-Parents Can Use a Respectful Approach to Nurture Their Child's Developme… spells this out in greater […]

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