Are you looking for respect or obedience?
In my parenting workshops I often ask parents what attributes and characteristics they would like their children to possess as teens and adults. The list usually looks something like this:
- willing to question others and make their own decisions
- believing in themselves
- able to take criticism
The list is hardly controversial or provocative. In fact, it seems entirely sensible. The list becomes interesting when I ask my next question: Why did no one say that they want their kids to grow up to be obedient?
Obedience vs respect
Many parents (and teachers) tell me that they want their children and students to think for themselves… until they do. At this point, if a child’s personal reflection has led to a decision at odds with mum, dad or the teacher, children may be referred to as “disrespectful”.
What’s the difference between obedience and respect? And why do we get them so easily confused?
Obedience means that we follow the instructions of an authority figure.
Respect means that we show due regard for the feelings, wishes and rights of others.
Aren’t they the same thing?
It’s easy to see how obedience and respect can be confused. When we respect someone, we will show our regard for their wishes by complying with what they ask, most of the time. This is particularly true in parenting and especially with young children. But typically, when we tell our children they need to be respectful, what we really mean is that we want them to be obedient.
Here’s an example from a parenting coaching client I worked with recently (names are changed):
Emma was exasperated as she walked into the living room where Cooper, her 11-year-old son, was playing on the Xbox.
“Cooper, I’ve asked you three times to empty your school bag, tidy your room and do your guitar practice.”
Cooper responded by pausing his game. He looked at Emma and replied, “I know, Mum. But I’ve got about 10 minutes to go to finish this. I’ll do it soon.”
Emma seethed. “You’ll do it now! I’m sick of repeating myself. None of you kids respect me! I ask you to do things over and over and you think this place is a damn hotel and I’m the maid! Now get off the stupid Xbox and do as you’re told or I’ll throw it in the bin!”
It is ironic that a significant proportion of adults think nothing of disrespectfully demanding respect from children they have deem as failing to exhibit it themselves.
Was Cooper being disobedient or disrespectful?
He did not obey the instant he was asked to do something. Sometimes this is OK. Other times it is not. The context matters – and parents need to be discerning as to when they demand obedience and when to be satisfied with a respectful delay or even denial from a child.
How do we teach respect?
If we yell, threaten or treat our children disrespectfully we cannot expect them to be respectful. We must stand on higher ground if we wish to lift others to where we are.
When parents offer choices, the child can determine what feels right for them within guidelines that parents feel good about. Choices might work like this:
- “I know you want ice cream but that’s not what we eat in the mornings. You can have Weet-Bix or muesli for breakfast. Which do you prefer?”
- “Would you prefer to tidy your bedroom now or after we’ve done the shopping?”
As we offer choices, our children learn that we have expectations and limits for them. But they also see us respecting their wishes as much as possible. We show respect.
Reasons and discussion
The more often we can help our kids understand why there are valuable reasons for what we’re asking, the better. When people understand the “why”, they’re more likely to do the “what”.
When we give our children a say in the decisions that affect them, obedience and respect become less problematic. Children are inclined to go with their decisions. This buy-in increases even more when we give them opportunities to work on things with us or with others.
As an example, when we ask them to tidy their room some time in the next 30 minutes and explain why it matters, we might also offer to help them. Each of these strategies models respect for our child and increases the likelihood that they’ll happily and respectfully go along with our request.
Children grow into caring, respectful kids if they themselves feel respected and cared for. An atmosphere of respect is more likely to produce a child who can be respectful. And a natural outcome of this respect is that our children may choose to be obedient, not out of compulsion, but because they have chosen it for themselves and it feels good.
This article was written by Dr Justin Coulson, parenting speaker and author, and father of six daughters.