Everyone, at some point in their life, has been told that you must respect your parents (and your "elders" in general). There’s never really much of an explanation given (though it is often mentioned in religious texts), and coincidentally, questioning this practice in and of itself can be construed as not showing respect. On the one hand, I agree that parents deserve some degree of respect, but that’s only because I believe everyone deserves to be respected. Additionally, now that I'm a parent, I totally ~get~ why "respect your elders" is so emphatically taught to kids — parenting is hard, and kids are annoying a lot of the time, and the underlying meaning of "respect" in this context is actually "listen to, obey, and generally don't give too hard of a time, come on, give them a break already, kid." And I get all of that. But becoming a parent, or an adult, doesn’t automatically make you more deserving of basic human respect than anyone else — and being a kid doesn't automatically make you less deserving of it.
One of my biggest pet peeves is seeing parents try to act as though they are deserving of respect 24/7 when they refuse to respect their own kids. It didn’t make sense to me as a child and it makes even less sense to me now as an adult. And now that I am a parent, I am striving toward never becoming that type of person. My husband and I both agree that we will always work toward respecting our son and hope that we can teach him how to be respectful of others as well. If you’re in the same boat and are wondering if you’re doing a good job so far, here’s a checklist to consult.
You Allow Them To Make Their Own Decisions As Much As Possible
Allowing kids to make their own choices is one of the best ways to show that you respect them and their wishes. Forcing a child to do anything (hug someone when they don’t feel comfortable, eat when they aren’t hungry or dislike the food, etc.) will only create an on-going power struggle between the two of you. It will also show your child that you just don’t give a damn about what they think or how they feel, which will certainly lead to some resentment later on. Plus it might create in them an inability to make their own decisions later in life. There's really no win to stripping your child of their autonomy, even at a really young age, other than the very temporary relief of not having to show the patience and humor that goes with sitting back and letting an inept tiny human find their own awkward way.
My son is just under two, but I already have a few ways of instilling this tactic. I’ve learned to set out a few items for meal times and allow him to decide which things he wants to eat and which ones he doesn’t. It can be a challenge, especially when he doesn’t feel like eating much, but I know he is healthy and will eat eventually, as toddlers will do. Every night at bedtime, I also set out a number of books in front of him and allow him to pick out the ones he wants me to read. These aren't huge things, obviously, except that they totally are: These habits are setting him up to feel empowered about making choices for himself, which is something that will be engrained in him forever, and it's setting up a relationship dynamic between the two of us that makes mutual respect a part of the game from the beginning.
You Allow Them To Have Autonomy Of Their Bodies
Don’t constantly fuss over your kid. If his hair is a little messy, you don’t always have to comb it down right away. Or if she’s only got one sock on and doesn’t feel like wearing the other sock, don’t force her to put it on. Kids should be allowed to dictate what happens to their bodies (except in the event of an emergency, or a serious safety risk, obviously). Will it really be the end of the world if your kid doesn’t want to wear fancy shoes to a wedding? Let them be comfortable. They are children. They have the rest of their lives ahead of them to deal with other people’s unnecessary standards and judgements. These tiny concessions early in life are so, so worth the message that you're teaching them: They are in charge of their body, period.
You Listen Attentively
No one likes to be ignored. It makes you feel unimportant and small. Children are no different. Just like you, they want you to hear them, and to validate what they are saying. Even young toddlers want your undivided attention. If I’m working on my laptop and my son wants me to listen to him (even though he isn’t exactly all that verbal yet), he will find ways of getting my attention (slapping my laptop keyboard, tapping my arm or leg). This is when I know I have to stop what I’m doing and listen to him gurgle about car keys and cookies and cats. This is setting the precedent for him knowing I will always be available to him to listen, and may help when he is older and actually needs to talk about something more pressing.
To be clear, I'm not saying that respecting our kids means we have to come running the moment they call, dropping whatever we have going in the process. That's obviously not practical nor is it healthy. It's more about not making your kid always feel like they're waiting for you, or that your needs are always more important than theirs, or that what they want to say (even before they can use actual words) isn't important.
You Ask Them To Help You Make Decisions
Although my son can’t really respond yet, I frequently ask him what he thinks of things, or ask him to help me decide on something (like what I should eat for lunch or whether or not I should write something). I will eventually use this tactic to ask him to help me make important household decisions (Where should we put the Christmas tree this year? Where do you think we should go on our next trip?) so that he knows he have a say in what goes on in our family. Totally easy way to make him feel like a respected part of the team. I wish I’d had some say in anything like this growing up.
You Don’t Interrupt Them
One of the easiest ways to disrespect people is by constantly disrupting them. Whether you mean to or not, it shows the other person that you don’t care enough about what they are currently talking about and that you feel that what you have to say is more important. No one likes this. It’s something my husband and I have both done to one another at times, and both gotten (rightfully) mad about. I’m constantly working on this to make sure my excitement to get my words out doesn’t trump someone else’s feelings. All that said, I plan to allow my son to finish his thoughts before interjecting some of my own into the conversation (especially once his vocabulary expands past, “hello” and “hurray”).
You Don’t Belittle Them
If you want to respect someone, that last thing you want to do is make them feel silly or ignorant when they are telling you something. Don’t ever tell them their feelings aren’t valid. Don’t say things like, “You’re too old to cry over that!” or “I can’t believe you fell for that,” or “What the hell is wrong with you?” Instead, say things like, “It’s okay to feel like that,” “I know how you feel,” and “I’m sorry you’re experiencing that.” Adults can get their feelings hurt, but children hurt much worse when you belittle their thoughts and emotions. And while this should go without saying, never, ever call them names. You especially never use ableist language to call a child (or anyone, really) dumb, stupid, or crazy.
You Encourage Them To Speak Their Mind
Always let kids know that you’re willing to listen and that what they have to say is important and should be heard. Never make your kids feel like they should be “seen and not heard.” Encourage them to use their voice. This can become one of their biggest weapons against everything from bullying to poor self-esteem to sexual abuse. Kids need to know that what they say matters, and they need to be given platforms in which their voices can be elevated. Your home is the first place this can happen.
You Don’t Lord Your Authority Over Them
Parents who respect their kids understand that it can be way too easy to develop a god complex after having kids. You feel like just because you gave birth to these beings, you are therefore infallible and your children should practically fawn over you, giving thanks daily for the gift of life. This, frankly, is nonsense (I mean, you are kinda awesome for creating human life, and you definitely do a lot for your kids, but none of that makes them obligated to be your unquestioning little soldiers forever.), which is something most of us know.
And beyond what your kid deserves in the way of basic respect, not giving it to them will likely have consequences that just don't make your life any easier at all. Lording your authority makes kids feel small and insignificant and can result in their inability to speak up or defend themselves, further pushing them into low self-esteem and negative behaviors. You want kids to respect you and love you and value your relationships? Let them know that yes, sometimes you need to be the boss, but that you still value and respect them and will do all you can to include them in all decisions.
You Admit If They Are Right And You Are Wrong
One thing parents do often is act as though they are always right. This, for the most part, comes from a pretty good place: We want to give our kids the stability and security of believing in their parents and their unwavering knowledge of how to live life (and thus, keep them safe and teach them how to live life). We want our kids to believe in us, and I have to think that always insisting we are right as parents is subconsciously about us not wanting our kids any reason to doubt us because of the insecurity that doubt could create.
But... parents who respect their kids know that there's at least as much damage that can be done by never letting our kids see us admit when we don't know something, or when we're wrong — especially if it means missing out on a chance to let them be right.
Even when kids question them, even when kids are able to flat out prove them wrong, many parents will often find ways to poke holes in their children’s arguments or just completely shut them down (either by forcing the conversation to a halt or yelling at their kids). But there’s nothing wrong with being wrong, and it’s important to show our kids that we are fully capable of not only recognizing when we are incorrect, but showing them how we learn from our mistakes, correct our behaviors, and become better, more educated, more compassionate individuals. Plus, there's nothing that will make your kid feel more confident or more respected than letting them have moments where they feel like the totally competent, smart, awesome people they are.