If you were asked what the most important thing you could give your child is, what would your answer be? I asked a few mums I know this very question and the answer was unanimous: love.
My knee-jerk answer was love, too. After some thought, I have a different answer. I think the most important thing I could give my children is respect.
Enough respect to admit I am sometimes wrong.
A week ago, I was a really horrible mother to Miss M. I was unreasonably impatient, I yelled when she didn’t deserve it and it ended with her in tears. I lay in bed that night feeling like a terrible parent. I had absolutely failed in the mommy department – really, you would have agreed if, heaven-forbid, there was a hidden camera.
I walked around all day, the following day, with a heavy heart and a burning feeling in the pit of my stomach. I couldn’t stop thinking that I had created a memory for my little girl of her Mum failing her, losing compassion and empathy and being just plain rotten. I had not treated her with respect.
That night, at bed time, I crept into her bed and told her I wanted to say something. She looked at me wide-eyed and open-hearted. I explained that I had been carrying with me all day the guilt for the sadness I had caused her and that I am so sorry for being such a terrible mother the night before. I admitted to being irrational. I admitted to being totally in the wrong. I told her that my greatest wish is for her to know always that I love her and respect her with every part of me and that the idea that I might have hurt her terrifies me.
Before I could continue, my little Miss lifted up her index finger and put it to my lips. Gently, she shushed me. “Mummy, I forgive you! Mistakes are there so we can learn to be better – that’s what you always tell me. Even mummies get to act a little nuts sometimes, you know.”
“Oh, Mummy, why are you crying?”
Because even though I was a rotten Mum, I must be doing something right.
By admitting I was wrong, by respecting her enough to explain that I was aware that my behavior to her was horrible and that I was sorry, I allowed her to not carry the burden of my bad behavior. It taught her that it’s okay to screw up, as long as you own it and apologize. It taught me the value of forgiveness – her forgiveness freed us both. It freed me from my guilt and worry. It freed her from possible feelings of inadequacy in my eyes.
Admitting you’re wrong doesn’t take away your authority, as a parent. It grows trust, it models humility and it builds a bond. Respect is the foundation.
Enough respect that when they say “no” to a hug, I don’t force the issue.
When I ask for a hug and my child says no, my reflexive response is to say “C’mon, give me a hug!” However, by disrespecting my child’s intuitive wishes, what I am doing is teaching him not to listen to his inner-voice. I am undermining his sense of control over his own body.
By respecting my children’s wishes – even at the expense of another person’s feelings – I am teaching them that they are in control of their own bodies and they are the only ones who get to decide who touches them, how they are comfortable being touched and when it feels okay to them. It teaches them to be in tune with how they feel and that their feelings are important. If they can say “no” to Mummy then they can most certainly say no to anyone else. They have a sense of power and permission to harness it confidently. By respecting their rights to their bodies, I am allowing them to develop a strong sense of self-respect and belief in their inner-voice. It shows them I love them enough to never put them in an uncomfortable physical situation.
Enough respect that when they have something to say, I listen.
It’s so easy, as a parent, to tune these little people out. Especially kids like mine who could, quite frankly, talk the hind legs off a whole herd of donkeys. The days are long and really, there are more important things for me to do than listen to the detailed descriptions of the classroom rules for the baby chicks (they are so fluffy and did you know that their feather is called down, I told you? really? let me tell you again!) and how (he explained to me for the 76th time today) you need to wash your hands after you touch them. Yes, it is easy to tune them out and throw in a “really?” and “uh huh” and “oh, wow!” randomly. I’m guilty, as charged. Unfortunately, these little people know when we are tuning them out. They really do. They are aware that we are not really engaged. They may not have the words to describe how this makes them feel – but I’m pretty sure ‘disrespected’ comes close.
If we make it a habit not to listen to our kids, they will understand that we are not good listeners. A pretty straight-forward deduction. If they don’t believe we listen when they talk, we are most certainly not creating an environment where they can confide in us when they have something important to say. I am as big a culprit as any in this regard. The ‘little’ things that they have to tell us today are huge to them. We need to respect this and listen. Actively listen. Show them that what they have to say has value to us. Showing them the respect of putting down the iPad, looking at them and really listening teaches them that they count, in your estimation.
I fail at this every day. I really don’t care about Dora and her stupid adventure to the City of Lost Toys. I despise Dora, in fact. But Baby G is Dora-obsessed. Do I want to hear about Dora for the next 10 minutes? No freaking way! Will I listen and engage next time Baby G wants to discuss her? I hope I will – because it’s important to her. Listening to her thoughts teaches her that I care about the contents of her mind. The little things are enormous things, in disguise.
I hope with all my heart that my children will always feel that they can talk to me. I want to be the kind of parent that they can come to for advice when they’re on the brink of a big decision and even more so, the kind of parent they will come running to when they have royally messed up. I want them to know my ears and shoulder are available. If I tune them out now, when they’re little – they are going to grow up believing I’m unavailable. Simple, really.
Enough respect to explain my decisions.
Miss M, age nine, really wanted to ride her bike to the park on her own, last week. I said no. She begged, “Pleeeeeease!” Again, I said “No!” More nagging led to me yelling, “I SAID NO!” She stomped her nine-year-old foot on the ground, squirted projectile tears at me and let me know, in no uncertain terms, that I was unfair and mean. She was frustrated and livid. She went on to exclaim, high-pitched and red-faced, that I should trust her and that she wouldn’t do anything stupid.
That is when I stopped and realised that I was not showing her the respect she deserved. Let me explain. She had a request and I said no. She heard, “I am the parent and I said no. End of story.” As a result, she felt like I didn’t trust her (wrong), she felt like I didn’t want her to be happy (wrong again) and she felt like I was unreasonable (wrong wrong wrong).
I sat her down and explained that I do trust her, but I don’t trust other people. I explained that the park was far away and I had no way of knowing that she was okay. I explained that she is too important to me to put in the path of danger and I promised her that we would work on strategies to give her more independence, like maybe a walkie-talkie system. I explained that I wasn’t ready to send her out on her own, until I was sure she’d be safe. Once I had done this – given her respect enough to provide an explanation – she was happy with my “no”. She was happy, felt respected and content knowing that she wasn’t being hard done by. Huge difference.
Enough respect to remove negative labels.
Little Man is prone to hitting his big sister when he is frustrated. Maybe it’s because she is older and wittier and always wins arguments, so he resorts to fists. Maybe it’s because he loses his temper and loses control. Maybe it’s simply because he is a seven year old boy and that’s just what seven year old boys do.
No matter – I can guarantee that if I labeled him a bully, he’d reverse himself straight into that pigeon-hole and a bully he would be. Why try be anything else? In his mind, the label would be firmly attached, so he may as well live up to the role, right?
With some very good advice from a friend, who is a kickass parent, I have a different reaction. When he hits, I try to rather respond with “You are the kindest boy I know, and that is not the behavior I am used to seeing from you.” I then bring up an example of how he handled a similar situation in a better way. More often than not, he does stop and think. It’s only at this point that he will explain to me what the problem was and together we talk about how to solve it. He walks away able to stand up for himself, without hitting and remains label-free. He wants to be a thoughtful, kind person, because that is who he believes he is. Yes – that’s a label, too, I guess. The difference is that it builds him up. It’s positive.
Labelling the bad behavior and then pointing out the child’s opposite personality trait is a great parenting tool. “You are a hard-working child and I am so proud of your commitment so far this term, let’s see you apply that to your homework today” is so much better than “Why haven’t you done your homework? You are lazy!” Same message – radically different delivery. Respecting my children enough to acknowledge that their behavior doesn’t define them will help them grow into strong adults who believe in themselves and their potential for greatness.
Enough respect to expect more from them.
My children are expected to make their own beds. They are expected to unload the dishwasher. They are expected to put their laundry in the hamper and put their clean laundry back in their cupboards. They are expected to set the table and clear it at the end of the meal. They are expected to help preparing meals too. Why do I give my children chores? Respect. We are all a part of a team – our family – and we all need to do our part.
We respect our children enough to let them know that they are capable of more than simply consuming. They are capable of coking a meal. This makes them feel important and valued. Miss M, at age nine can cook an entire dinner by herself (getting her to eat it is a whole different story – but I digress…), Baby G, at the age of four, can make a salad, Little Man, age 7, can scramble eggs like a pro. They respect the work it takes for their dad and I to keep things going because they do it themselves. They feel respected when they do their share and most importantly, they have a healthy self-respect, knowing that they are capable of standing on their own two feet.
Yes, love is absolutely the most important gift you can give your child. I just don’t believe love on it’s own is enough. In fact, I think love, unaccompanied by respect, is often invisible. LOVE is the package we need to give our children every day. RESPECT is the way we deliver it.
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