Parents frequently call me on the 1-on-1 Coaching line to discuss respect. Some will say, “The ONLY thing I ask from my child is that they respect me.” They reason that if they are respected, their child will do everything they are asked to do, will not say anything impolite, and will be motivated by positive feelings toward their parent. These are terrific goals, but I’ve started to ask people not to even use the word “respect” when they talk to their children about their behavior, and I’ll explain why.
“Respect” is an emotionally-loaded word and in my experience, when people are demanding respect from each other, the relationship is in trouble. It takes more than asking for a feeling to fix the problem. People can become enraged when they feel disrespected in the same way that we become enraged if someone cuts us off in traffic. We feel it as an extreme personal insult. Some people feel crushed and worthless if they perceive they have been disrespected. New family members, such as a fiancée or step-parent, sometimes become anxious about carving out a solid position in the new family and can equate respect with obedience and authority over the children or the new partner. And the word can mean many things to different people: respect can mean to be honored, feared, obeyed, appreciated, understood, or considered.
One of the principles James Lehman outlines in The Total Transformation Program is to ignore attitude and focus on behavior. If we as parents can get the emotions separated from the behavioral requirements, we are less likely to feel offended and become punitive with our consequences. Look at respect as a behavior and not as a feeling. Instruct your child to behave respectfully and don’t require them to feel respectful toward you.
Parents will tell me they have said to their children, “You need to speak to me with respect.” “You need to respect my wishes.” When children are oppositional, offer them the choice of following the house rules, or experience a consequence. Keep your language as neutral as possible. Your child isn’t avoiding his chores because he doesn’t respect you, but because he’d rather be doing something else. Instead of getting upset and having an emotional confrontation with your child to try to force him to get up and do what you want him to do right now, simply implement the consequence for that behavior. Instead of saying to your child, “You can’t speak to me that way,” say, “You need to sound polite.” or “It’s not okay to use that tone of voice or that language.” You are requiring your child to behave politely but not to feel respect. This we can ask of each other, but we cannot demand a feeling from each other.
About Carole Banks
Carole Banks, MSW holds a Masters Degree in Clinical Social Work from the University of New England. Carole has worked as a family and individual therapist for over 16 years, and is a former 1-on-1 Coach for Empowering Parents. She is also the mother of three grown children and grandmother of six.