Is it Fear or Regard – Why Do Our Children Respect Us?

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“Shouldn’t we be teaching our children to respect us?” said a father in a session of my parenting class.  “I certainly respected my father – I always did what he said. How can you get a child to respect you if you don’t use punishment or rewards?”

Whoa. A parent was confronting me with a question that had hovered in my sub-conscious for years, but which I had not examined because it was too difficult, too challenging.  What was ‘respect’? How would I answer him?

I teach, and try to live by, an approach to parenting called Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.).  When I write or speak about P.E.T., I summarise the course as ‘helping parents and children to develop a relationship of mutual respect’.  I emphasise that P.E.T. differentiates itself because it helps parents avoid the use of rewards and punishment.

Now I was faced with a vexed question: “What are the different types of respect, and why do I think it is important in parenting?”

As a starting point, I considered the debate around whether parents could smack their children.  One of the most common statements from people who endorsed smacking seemed to be, “children need to learn to respect their parents”.  To me, this type of respect was based on fear.

Ironically, my passion for P.E.T. also revolved around the word ‘respect’, and children respecting their parents.  But the respect to which I referred was based on regard.

In these two examples, the assumption behind the word ‘respect’ was a world, a culture, apart.

I returned to the present with the father who had asked the question.

“You’re confused when we discuss avoiding the use of punishment and reward, because how else are we going to teach children to respect their parents?” I responded.

“Yes!” he said.

“I’m curious about the reason you respected your father.”

“Because I was scared of what he would do if I didn’t do as he said”.

We both realised, at this point, that fear was the driving force, the reason, for his respect of his father.

“I’m afraid of him. I suppose that’s why I’m at this course. I don’t want my children to be afraid of me”.

Questions of Respect

What could I find out about the different types of respect, and why was it important in parenting?

Respect, according to the Oxford dictionary means “a feeling of deep admiration for someone elicited by their abilities, qualities or achievements.”  As both a noun and verb, it is also defined as being, or having, “due regard for the feelings, wishes, or rights of others”.  Nowhere, in this definition, is there a mention of fear.

Looking further for answers, I discovered that, as with all deceptively ‘simple’ questions, there was no simple answer.  The concept of ‘types of respect’ morphed into one of philosophy, of culture, and of interpretation. Although there seem to be many types of respect, I will look at just two.

Respect Borne of Fear

I wondered about fear-based respect.

When children respect their parents because they fear them, there is an inherent power imbalance that favours the parent. In a conflict, the voice and need of the child (and that child may be an adult) is silenced, not recognised or validated.  Most often, the source of the fear will be threats, such as a punishment for not obeying, or a reward for doing what is asked.

Parents that rely on fear expect their children to show respect by being obedient or compliant.

Respect from the child towards the adult is assumed as being unconditional and constant.  Respect from the parent to the child, however, will be conditional and intermittent, depending on the parent’s judgement of their child at that time.

Writers such as Thomas Gordon and Alfie Kohn explore in great depth, the negative consequences of such parental control that relies on punishments and fear.

Respect Borne of Regard

So, I asked myself – just what do I mean when I describe P.E.T. as building a relationship of ‘mutual respect’?

In this case, respect equates to regard.  That is, that each person in the relationship cares for, and values, the other person.  Parents are concerned for the feelings, wishes and needs of their children.  They also help their children see that they (the parents) have feelings, wishes and needs.  Both children and parents consider each other in a relationship where respect is based on regard.

Types of Respect and the Effect on Relationship

Why is it important to think about the basis of respect, in regards to relationship?

Healthy, positive family relationships are crucial for both child and parent wellbeing.  Many parents attend parenting courses because they are concerned about the quality of the relationship with their children.

Relationships that rely on fear-based respect are unequal and hierarchical.  How can children share their lives, their deepest thoughts, their trust, when they are afraid of their parents? Children are less likely to be influenced by the values of their parents, if parents have depended on fear to force respect.

A parent-child relationship that is based on respect as regard, however, will encourage a mutual sharing and understanding.  Children will trust their parents, and there will be capacity to strengthen and grow the relationship – on mutual terms.  Children are more likely to be influenced by family values, if they feel valued within the family.

So – How do Children Learn to Respect their Parents if Parents don’t use Punishment or Reward?

A respected child becomes a respectful child.

When we respect our children through the way we talk with them; the way we listen to them; the way we include them in decision making about their own lives; the way we trust them; then we are developing a respect that does not rely on punishment or reward.

Parenting programs such as P.E.T. help parents learn the skills to avoid reward and punishment, and instead concentrate on growing the relationship with their child.  Respectfully, and with regard.

The words of the father at my parenting class (and many others since) haunt me.

I don’t want my children to be afraid of me”.

Understanding our own, personal meaning around ‘respect’ can influence the depth and quality of the relationship we have with our children.  For life.

Learn more about P.E.T