A Parenting Quandary: Respect or Protect?

Well Meaning Parenting: In the trenches of parenting, whatever the child’s age, a primary motivation is to “protect” the child from everything from dental decay to death. The parenting manual, implicit as it is, but part of any species, is to promote the survival of the species, i.e. our offspring.

Love as Motivation: In the human motif of survival, a conscious feeling of love dictates much of our motivation. However, on a more primitive but significant level, most living beings are required to protect the creatures whom they birth (or adopt). What complicates the human enterprise is cognitive awareness and reflection on the part of our children.

“Our Offspring are Watching Us.” As early as two years old, as one patient of mine records, awareness of the issue of “respecting my abilities” emerges. While she clearly could not have “conceptualized” this at that age in these terms, what my patient was feeling was clear: “Why did she (mom) need to remind me to look both ways when I crossed the street?”, questioned this clever independent woman, when reviewing childhood issues. “I did it everyday! And everyday she reminded me, as if I hadn’t done it the day before.” Likewise, my son reminds me of his frustration and insult at being questioned, each night for what seems like forever, to “brush your teeth.” Perhaps parental “attitude” gets caught in the crosshairs of the battle for respect that young children embark on far earlier than many realize. Parental attitude is born out of an instinct to protect the survival of the species, love for one’s child, one’s own upbringing and of course, societal mores. The manner in which a parent interacts with their child around  the multi-faceted and complex issues of socializing with peers, how to approach homework, decide on colleges, parties, drinking, parenting their grandkids, all require some awareness of the protect versus respect dilemma.

A Child’s Developing Self-Image Grapples with Parental Message: What is a parent to do? Children from an early age, I would suggest birth, deserve respect for what they can decipher and implement. Research into the cognitive abilities of young children reveals language awareness far earlier than expected. From birth an infant knows the scent of its mother from others. As far back as the 1980’s, as the law suggests, the courts have struggled with what middle school age and adolescent children comprehend regarding grave health decisions. As a clinician who has worked for many years with late middle school aged children and adolescents, I can attest to the importance of “feeling respected” by parents, that underscores many of the more painful and sharply divisive feelings of these youths. Our children tend to be far more aware and intelligent than we may realize or they may even manifest. Behaviorally, they are bound by peer pressure, hormones and a developmental sequencing that prevents the articulation of much of what they intuit but can not put into words. What I have seen suggests that some unfortunate behaviors in this age group are fueled by the feelings of disrespect garnered from arguments with parents. In a fit of tears and anger, many a young female has said these words to me: “What difference does it make what I do, they don’t respect me anyway.” Alas, rationalization? Or valid assessment?

Protect? But how do we as parents know whether our children understand what is needed to protect themselves?  After all, from the onset of the infant-parent relationship, parenting requires that the mother or father imagine what can go wrong in order to make sure that it doesn’t. Whether it be the visual of the child bumping into the hard-edged glass coffee table at a friend’s house, and placing a hand on the edge to make sure that doesn’t happen or schmoozing with the bus driver so that he will protect your child from skirmishes on route to kindergarten, without the ability to “imagine” negative outcome on the part of the parent, most children would not make it to adulthood. We are wired for this ability.  To know  what lies outside  our child’s grasp?…. alas, here’s the rub. We really don’t know. In our urgency to ensure that we are doing our job, protecting our children from disaster, bad choices, disappointments and death, we scurry about “telling them” what is best for them. Protection is everything. Prevention is utmost. Envisioning negative outcomes is part of successful parenting.

Listening for Guidance: Protecting our children for as long as we have breath and mental orientation, is a temptation and action that defies age or rationality. Our age, their age, or the rationality of parent or child. However, there is one possible antidote to the ever-present inclination to “advise”….. asking and listening!. Perhaps if my patient’s mom had inquired of her young daughter if she knew what to do on the way to nursery school, she may have heard something reassuring, such as, “I will look both ways before I cross”, and then  mom could swell with pride at her bright daughter, mutter “great job”, and witness with bated breath as her daughter crossed the small pathway between home and school while the mom monitored her newborn in the house. Perhaps the compilation of the two activities might have built trust, conveyed respect, and eliminated the young child’s feeling (which grew over the years from other such encounters) of not being understood, known and respected.

Similarily, if I had simply gone upstairs and quietly observed my son’s activities before bedtime, I might have realized that indeed, he knew just what to do with his teeth, and perhaps refrained from suggesting, by implication, that I did not trust that he was in command of himself. “RESPECT!

Respect: We all know that Aretha got it right.  “R E S P E C T” needs to spelled out. As parents that isn’t always easy. “P R O T E C T” is in a much bigger font in our psyche than respect…but actually they are probably developmentally equal. One is clearly physical and comes from our more primitive brain, the reptilian brain we share with the animal kingdom. The other psychological, conceptual, perhaps technological.  Both are intrinsic to success.

Being Known, The Underpinings of Respect: A deep cry from within all children/adult children, is the wish to be known, by their parents and anyone else important to them. Another frequently heard refrain over the years as therapist are the words “They don’t even know me.” Usually said with heart wrenching sobs from the girls and indignation from both genders, the bruises to the trust between parent and child are evident, no matter the age or gender. Well into senility we as children feel the pain of parental lack of faith in us.

Listen, Question, Help to Provide the Tools of Language, Reflect, and Take a Chance: Where that leads us as parents is simply to take the time to observe our children, ask them questions, be interested in their opinions, and at times, take a chance, let them fly. Start this early, at birth: watch them!! And from early along, as soon as they are verbal, ask them what they think is going on, be interested in their answers, give them choices, and always help them to find the words to convince you to believe in their abilities. Self image, self esteem, confidence in one’s ability, is acquired over the years. As parents we can influence this mightily by pausing in our rush to protect, by taking a moment to get to know them. Wow! And respect, the Aretha kind, spelled out.

The Coupledom: Of course, this is a couples’ activity. Both parents need to be on board to offer that acknowledgment and respect…to take chances, to calibrate when to  protect. How to respect. This is a significant challenge . Perhaps one partner tends toward allowing greater freedom and risk taking…..”let’s see what he/she does”. The other may have more visuals of what can go wrong. Cobble the two together, listen to the child, look at their “references” (past behaviors-help them correct the negative)….locate with them the language they need to state what they understand. Developing language tools is key here. Your’s and their’s. The Coupledom needs to work as a team, pulling from each other’s strengths, perceptions and concerns to protect and respect your child, together.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2011

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