As a parent I want my children to grow up to be happy and confident adults, don't we all? Is that an easy goal to achieve? How we talk to and react to what our children do is the basis of our relationship, most often we choose the path that we know, the one given to us by our own parents. We are most likely to be using parenting patterns that we have not given any thought as to whether they make sense or how we learnt them, following a script that we have not written.
The way many kids are treated suggests a lack of respect for their needs and preferences - in fact, a lack of respect for children, period. A lot of parents act as though they believe that kids don't deserve respect in the way adults do.*
Our attitude as a society towards children is poor, how many times have you been seen that look, you know the one I mean, given to the parent of a child who is in the throes of shouting or screaming in a public place. If as a society we do not hold children in great esteem it is easier for parents to treat their children disrespectfully. If we treat our children with respect, speak to them respectfully and they feel respected they will in turn respect others. When I speak to my children I try to remember to use the same language as I would wish to have spoken to me. In the heat of the moment I sometimes forget, if we screw up it is good to admit it and apologise, for me this demonstrates to my children how apologising works, that I can and do make mistakes and that I have taken ownership of them without losing face or feeling inadequate.
The look that I refered to earlier comes from a desire for children to behave in a certain way, good children are the ones that are sitting quietly and behaving as adults expect them to. When the child has no awareness of these rules of engagement, is it acceptable to punish their behaviour if it does not meet these standards. Are these rules justified and more importantly are they in our children's best interests. Of course I am not for one moment suggesting that running around in a busy cafe is a be encouraged, however if we as parents do not demand obedience all the time we are likely to listened to, when we do ask, if a situation demands that of us. It is important that we allow our children to make their own decision about what is appropriate in a given situation, we learn to become good decision makers not by following the directions of others but by being allowed to make our own decisions. We should allow our children to make those decisions that might make us gulp and not to simply say no even when it make no sense or because we are unwilling to give control.
We might say it's our job to be "in control" in the sense of creating a healthy and safe environment, offering guidance, and setting limits - but it's not our job to be controlling.*
If we are controlling our children's behaviour are we doing so with the best intentions. If a child behaves inappropriately do you think it calls for consequences or, more appropriately, an opportunity for teaching, a working with response as opposed to doing to. A punishment approach is one of power over your children, of making them suffer, how is that going to help a child to know what is appropriate. If we find so much of what our children do and/or say unacceptable and we tell them so, often, then surely this will lead them to feel that they at unacceptable as a person, people do not get better at dealing with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were younger. Too much criticism and disapproval is soul destroying and is likely to stop any attempts to try anything.
When we make children obey by force, threats or punishments, we make them feel helpless. They can't stand feeling helpless, so they provoke another confrontation to prove they still have power. And where do they learn to use that power? From us.*
To treat and speak to our children as we would wish to be treated and spoken to requires us to step outside our own viewpoint and to consider how the world looks to them. If you tend to dismiss people with whom you disagree are you not leaping to make incorrect assumptions. When we learn more this can help us to build a picture below the surface rather than just looking at the behaviour as a snapshot, but our mind has to be open to the information and receive it without judgement.
* Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn