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Teaching Respect

Recently, it seems that embarrassing your kid on Facebook has become all the rage for 21st-century parenting. Tommy Jordan famously shot his daughter’s laptop after she badmouthed him online. More recently, Denise Abbott punked her daughter online by hijacking her Facebook account and posting a photo featuring her daughter with an X over her mouth. I find these trends disturbing on several levels. In the spirit of internet punditry, I’m going to explain why.

Disclaimer: Up front, you need to know that I’m a parent. I’ve got several absolutely incredible kids. The fact that they’re incredible makes me feel as though I have some decent ideas on parenting. And since it’s my blog, I feel perfectly free to stand on my soapbox and share these ideas. 🙂

Let’s get started, shall we?

I think a lot of parents are confused about their role in a child’s life. Many parents I know and see seem to emphasize control as their primary role. Control initially happens as a means of protection from harm. This is a slightly off-balance variation of guidance. In practice, it looks the same to a lot of folks, but the differences are deeply significant.

If we look at our young baby crawling around,  baby wants to put all sorts of things in his/her mouth. Modern parents tend to only allow teething rings, toys and other “kid-approved” goodies to go into that space. This is done from the seat of best intentions, but it fails on several important levels. First of all, our intrepid explorer puts everything in her/her mouth as a means of discovery. By disallowing self-discovery of good/bad, our child’s primary means of developing self-evaluation skills is greatly diminished. Instead of letting the child come to the logical conclusion that repeated handfuls of sand in the mouth ultimately tastes not so great and might be better avoided, helpful parents disallow the behaviour and the kid doesn’t come to his/her own conclusion. Opportunity lost.

The second opportunity lost is for the child’s immune system to be introduced to all manner of helpful and not-really-harmful bacteria. We all recognize the need for growing children to exercise to develop strong frames. Growing immune systems need similar exercise, and it comes from being exposed to different bacteria in the environment such that it can learn to appropriately identify and react to different pathogens. Without adequate practice, a child’s immune system never learns which response is relevant to which pathogen. This can create a foundation for the development of allergies. Moreover, in lieu of healthful bacteria being introduced to the gut, overall health can be sorely compromised later in life.

That’s a lot to think about, and our baby hasn’t even stopped crawling yet. Suffice it to say, however, that we shouldn’t confuse our role of Guide as being Controller. Unfortunately, many parents were raised by controllers instead of guides. It’s difficult to break out of a cycle of experience. Thinking outside the box requires that we see the box for what it is. In this case, we need to guide the kid to learning how to decide what should go in his/her mouth, not control what goes in there. The difference is crucial.

Fast forward a few years and if we review the family dynamic, the role hasn’t really changed much on the parent’s side. Our job is to guide, not control. Most importantly, we need to be teaching by example. This concept is vital to our success as parents, as any inability we have in this regard will result in our children’s behaviour mirroring that inability.

A perfect example of this behaviour cycle is witnessed in the above-mentioned punishment via online humiliation. Parents, by all means, should teach and expect respect. In my experience, there’s really only one way to teach your children to respect others, and that is by respecting your children. Your children learn to respect you and others by whether you respect them and others. If you’re of the fold that believes children should be seen and not heard, you’re surely not showing them any respect as an individual. In removing any meaningful avenue of self-expression and initiating in the child a sense of disempowerment, you sow the seed of rebellion.

In the face of a lack of freedoms and rights, people will game the system. Period, full stop.

If parents wish to curtail online bashing by their kids on <insert favoured social media here>, it’s incumbent upon them to give their kids a voice. Children should be empowered to state their concerns. Parents may not want to think of a family unit as a democracy, but by trying to run a household as a dictatorship or theocracy, you’re doomed to creating an environment of unrest.

What about punishment?

By all means, we need to teach that actions have consequences, but many people send the wrong message. In the above examples of public displays of shooting laptops and defacing Facebook pages, parents teach the following lessons:

  • Parents will disallow any avenue of self-expression possible and, failing to do so, will resort to public humiliation as required to force desired conduct;
  • Parents will flagrantly disregard TOU and even state/federal law to create said humiliation (accessing and defacing a Facebook account is simply not legal, let alone moral behaviour);
  • In the face of an apparent lack of respect, the parent will show no respect whatsoever to the alleged offender (in this case, the child).

These are not the intended messages, but they are the messages being imparted at a deeply subconscious level.

We humans learn by example. Our parents are our role models. If you’re a parent, you have an obligation to understand how your actions will ultimately unfold. If you want to be respected by your kids, show your kids respect. It’s a logical fallacy to think that respect is earned. Respect is given or not. Trust, too. One chooses their stand and reaps the reward of that decision.

So, parents of the world, my advice to you is simple: If you want to keep your kids from badmouthing you on Facebook, give them a real voice at home. Everybody has reasons for disagreement. Those who learn to discuss them from a place of trust and understanding can, inevitably, come to some common understanding. Beyond that, however, is the more important point of why any such badmouthing bothers you in the first place. This, too, has deep significance.

If you’re worried about what others say, even — or especially — your kids, then you might want to evaluate how you perceive your worth. Do you depend on others holding you in high esteem as a means of determining your worth and value as a person? If so, you’re selling yourself really short and, worse, empowering others to control your happiness. What others say or think about you has nothing whatsoever to do with your actual worth as a person. Your worth stands apart from anything others may say or do. Your legacy is yours to create and yours alone.

If we want our kids to lead lives rich with tolerance, freedom, responsibility, respect and altruism, we need to live these ideals in our own lives. You can’t demand respect from your kids in the absence of same in their regard and expect to be respected. Life doesn’t work that way. Expressing intolerance, humiliation, bullying and retaliation as parents will create exactly those attributes in our kids.

On my own journey as a father, I’d like to thank my kids — (in chronological order) Tara, Skye, Jasmine and Nigel — for their help in teaching me to do a better job of it. I hope to keep getting better.

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