A few years ago I was eager to read a critically acclaimed book about parenting that was written by a Canadian woman with tons of professional experience as a family therapist. The tagline made the promise of helping readers create loving closeness with their children – my kind of book! But I hated it. Before I reached the end of the first page I swore out loud at the author and slammed the book shut.
My big problem? The writer advocated for treating children with ‘respect’, but I don’t think our ideas about the meaning of ‘respect’ were in alignment. After some reflection (and raging), I vowed to read the entire book no matter how repulsed I was. I chose a mindset of ‘keep your friends close and your enemies closer,’ knowing there is always something to learn from a situation that is a deep trigger.
Her message – we need to genuinely connect with our kids and support them emotionally – was correct, and the author’s ideas and techniques to help parents do this were easy to implement and seemed highly effective (yay!!). But the underlying reason for this connection was to get kids acting in ways that are acceptable to their parents. The underlying values were obedience and the authority of adults.
Newsflash: children often act in ways that are inconvenient to their adult caregivers and society in general. It is actually developmentally and evolutionarily appropriate for them to do so! If we think this shouldn’t be the case, then we are the ones with entitlement issues.
This ‘adult authority’ thing is tricky. Of course adults are more experienced than young people. Adults are more practiced at imagining the consequences of their actions. We know what it means to think through various possible outcomes, and the files in our minds are full of information from the past about what might work and what might not at any given time.
But advanced age doesn’t automatically afford us advanced wisdom or integrity or courage. Obedient children may be favourable at times, yet obedient adults can be another story.
Is it rational to expect young people to submit to the demands of our pathological and dysfunctional society?
As a parent, there is a long list of things I value that come before obedience or the authority of adults. These include:
- Problem solving
- Critical thinking
It comes down to this: sometimes people use ‘respect’ to mean ‘treating someone like a person’ and sometimes they use ‘respect’ to mean ‘treating someone like an authority’. So sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say ‘if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you’ and they mean ‘if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person.’
If I had written the book I would have highlighted the importance of parents asking themselves deeply respectful questions like these:
- What’s really important to me?
- What’s really important to my kid?
- What are my values as a parent?
- What do I want in my relationship with my child?
- How can I manage difficult conversations & circumstances with my child while holding onto my personal values?
- What if my child is right in this moment and I am wrong?
- Is my confidence about a certain parenting action justified? How can I tell if I’m becoming self-righteous and slipping towards disrespect for my kid?
- If my kid is acting in an inconvenient/inappropriate way, how can I demonstrate to her/him that I understand his rage, that I am on her side, that I am sorry s/he is in so much pain, that I can handle his big feelings and I can help him handle them too?
Convenient and obedient children may be appealing when our kids are young, but we have to approach our work as parents with the long view in mind. Teenagers are around the corner faster than any of us are usually prepared for. We need the perspective that we are PARTNERS with our children working on the same goal – the development of a fully grown and functioning human being.
It’s not just about the current moment, the current crisis, our teen’s current demand, or our current response. Take responsibility for the impact you want to have through your parenting. Does it reflect your values? What parts of the parenting you do today will you be proud of in 10 years?
We all get to learn and grow and decide to do things differently. Mistakes happen to every single one of us, and it can be liberating to recognize this. Even Dr. Spock famously changed his mind before he died.