Never Too Late for Respectful Parenting

Since most of the advice I share is focused on the infant, toddler and preschool years, parents who have older children frequently ask me, “Is it too late?” My answer is an unqualified “never.”  The follow-up question is, “Great, so how do I begin?”

I answer that by sharing some of the ways my mentor Magda Gerber’s Educaring Approach (also known as RIE) has continued to inform my parenting with my own children, now 20, 16 and 11:

1. Keeping faith in our kids’ competency

Magda’s first principle is about having basic trust in infant competence. Belief in our kids as capable, whole people is a self-fulfilling prophecy that fosters tremendous self-confidence and the healthiest parent-child dynamic imaginable.

When we begin with trust, our children have opportunities to show us that they are able to figure out life’s challenges like walking, talking, how toys work, climbing, toilet learning, reading, homework, eventually applying to college, etc. Through these autonomous struggles and accomplishments our trust in their abilities grows along with their self-confidence.

Alternatively, if we don’t truly believe our kids are capable of handling age-appropriate tasks without our assistance, or we worry that they’ll be crushed by frustration, mistakes, disappointments or failures, we might perpetuate a cycle of dependency.

For example, the need some teenagers seem to have to be prodded or nagged to do their homework has often been created by parents who believe children need them to nag to get the job done. Putting an end to a cycle like this one entails stepping back and letting go, having faith in our child to cope with age-appropriate situations, and allowing the issue of completing homework to be worked out where it should be — between children and their teachers.

Practicing basic trust as children grow means intervening as minimally as possible:

  • Whenever children have choices, let them choose — trust children’s individual learning agendas rather than imposing ours on them
  • Honor each child’s unique developmental process rather than focusing on results, accomplishments, milestones
  • Calmly support children through their frustration, disappointment and even failure, so that we normalize these difficult, but healthy life experiences.
  • Let kids do it their way, even if we might believe ours is better

2. Encouraging inner-directedness, “process” and communion with self

But the child does not want to get anywhere; he just wants to walk, and to help him truly the adult must follow the child, and not expect him to keep up…”  – Maria Montessori, Education for a New World

If we allow them to, children will remind us of the importance of now and impart other affirming messages like less is more, simple is best, earlier is not better, life is not a race and the joy is in the journey.

But rather than be inspired, many parents mistakenly believe it’s their job to help their kids get ahead, so they stimulate, teach, place them in enrichment classes every day after school, and fill their weekends with exciting activities and events.

These parents might not realize that children actually learn best when they do less and have more time to digest, integrate and assimilate their experiences.

How do we discern “enough” stimulation from too much? Again, the answer will always be trust. To raise inner-directed, passionate kids we must encourage them to listen to the quiet voice inside them, the one only they can hear and that parents can easily drown out. Begin with an enriching home environment and let children clearly indicate their need for more. And don’t over-praise, so journeys and accomplishments can continue to be self-rewarding.

3. Accepting children’s feelings without judging or rushing them

Letting our kids express intense feelings is one of our biggest challenges, because most of us weren’t encouraged to do this by our own parents. We might have been told that our outbursts were silly or wrong, urged to hurry up and feel better, sent away or punished. Our feelings made everyone uncomfortable and we got the message they weren’t welcome.

So when our kids cry, yell or hit-the-floor tantruming, the emotions we buried can get triggered, and we unintentionally pass this invalidation on down to our kids.

(And, by the way, that’s my only explanation for the popularity of comedy sites focusing on crying toddlers. Like abuse victims who are compelled to become abusers themselves, the fans of these sites seem to feel giddily empowered ridiculing the vulnerabilities of small children.)

The way most of us diminish feelings is far more subtle and loving. We don’t ever want to see our kids hurt or upset, so we try to calm them down by reassuring them, “It’s okay”, “You’re fine”, “It’s just a…” But these responses also invalidate, because when children are upset they don’t feel fine, and our words can’t change that. Our “comforting” responses are confusing, diminishing, teach children not trust their feelings and maybe even to fear them.

Unfortunately, resisting the urge to calm the feelings never gets much easier. Kids are going to get their feelings hurt. A lot. They’ll get rejected by friends, not make the A- team, lose the debate, do poorly on the test and get their hearts broken. Such is life. And it will take every bit of our strength to zip our lips, bite our tongues, just listen, nod, and acknowledge, “That was hurtful.” Of course, what we really want to do is shout, “They didn’t deserve you!” “You’ll do better next time!” “It’ll be alright” (well, that last one might be serviceable…after we’ve listened to the tears for a good long time).

The healthiest message children can get from us is that their darkest moods and harshest feelings will be heard, accepted, understood by us, even when these feelings are about us (more on that to come). Fostering a close lifelong bond with our kids is as simple as that.

***

 I share many more details about this approach in
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting (now available on Audible!)

26 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Definitely needed this post today – to reaffirm that I am doing the right thing, even if it sometimes feels like I’m getting nowhere with my beautiful 2 year old.. I need to read this every time he tries to put his head through the arm of his singlet, every time he takes his whole sock off instead of just straightening the toes, and every time he rides his balance bike by standing and walking it between his legs instead of sitting on the seat… All those times I bite back the urge to help/fix/show/correct, I need to read this to remember I AM doing the right thing by letting him do and learn things in his own time..
    Something that I never knew to do until I discovered your site was to acknowledge and accept his feelings and to voice that to him.. As he melted down tonight just before bed, I turned to him, wiped his tear away, and said you’re really tired tonight and feeling very frustrated! He stopped, looked at me, and just gave me the biggest hug..
    Thank you Janet, for all that you share – your words and advice are helping me to foster the kind of relationship with my gorgeous boys, that I always wanted to have with my parents.

    1. Such a beautiful comment to wake up to this morning! Thank you, Mandy, for sharing these tremendous successes, so that I can celebrate them with you. Cheers!

  2. This is timely. My husband and I spoke today about what to do with a 13 and 14 year old who want to be on their laptops in their rooms all day. I’ve given them books and they have some classes this summer and chores but I have to remind them of everything (chores, medicine, time to go to class) and don’t see them when they’re home. I want to limit the computer to 4 hours but I get tired of being the bad guy. Also, I don’t really like checking their text messages. It feels invasive. But I know it makes sense so my husband does that. It’s hard to know how MUCH freedom to give at this age. They’re much more independent than their friends as far as getting around the city, etc. But last night when I took away computers, they both did very productive things.

    1. Kate, I think limiting the laptop time is a good idea, although I wouldn’t check text messages at that age, unless I had a very serious concern. I agree that it’s invasive.

      For me, what makes limits like that respectful is developing a plan together… like asking them which hours of the day they would most like laptop time, etc… and keeping it to those hours… Might also work best to have laptop time come after classes or chores.

  3. Janet, thanks for another amazing post. I am so thankful that I found your blog. It has supported my parenting through so many doubts and worries.

    And thank you for linking to Lisa’s post on toilet learning. I am expecting another child in January and was starting to panic that I needed to get my almost-3-year-old out of diapers. Of course, it’s not up to me, really, despite what society tells us parents.

  4. You have such great advice, and it has really helped me be a better mom, especially as we just had our third child and have been transitioning.

    I have a question about my almost 3-year-old daughter. She has been making lots of messes lately, as I expected she would after the baby was born, but I’m not sure how to deal with them.

    As an example, the other day while I was nursing the baby, she was getting toilet paper from the bathroom, shredding it into tiny bits and then dropping it on the carpet. I calmly asked her not to do that and to please throw the toilet paper away. She refused to help me pick it up. I don’t know what to do because I can’t lock all the bathrooms to make toilet paper unavailable, and there isn’t a positive way to “make” her clean it up, but doing nothing and picking it up myself (over and over again) doesn’t seem like I’m modeling self-respect.

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Lindsey! Hmmm… Can she be prevented from entering the bathroom, since it isn’t the safest place anyway? I’m also thinking you might say something like, “Oh, is tearing paper something you like to do?” And then offer her some paper she can tear into tiny bits (good fine motor skill practice there) and place into a container, maybe even a coffee can with a little slot cut into the lid for her to try to fit the papers into. Does that sound crazy? 🙂

      1. I’ve thought about locking all the bathrooms, but she and her older brother need to be able to get in quickly to use the bathroom on their own. That is a good idea to give her an acceptable way to do it, but I kind of think she’s doing it to test me and it’s not as much about the toilet paper 😉 I’m stumped.

        1. Can a flip latch be put on where brother can reach but she can’t?
          “nursing boxes” roll out here small boxes with cars and tissue paper and things to do for that period where babe is feeding.

  5. avatar Genevieve says:

    So true!

    My son is 14 months and very physical. He loves running and jumping and he loves loves loves to read.

    The problem is he is not yet verbal – he can sign the basics, and say please, dog, cat etc. but he really wants to have a full conversation –
    I can tell!

    Just this morning, he was helping me scrunch the newspaper to light the fire when he turned and pointed to the corner of the room – he was signing please and saying please but to my eyes I couldn’t see anything. I was in a rush , it was cold so when I just said ‘ there is nothing there August lets finish this’ he started to cry and whine then threw himself on the floor. I picked him up and said ‘ you are really frustrated and upset because you can’t tell me what you want, I will hold you until you feel better’ as I was holding him I saw it – under the dresser were the matches I had been looking for in frenzy all morning. I got them out and he clapped with glee.

    It was a moment for me to realise that I need to breathe in and whatever frustrations I feel are minor to a child who knows what they want to say, can understand you yet can’t verbalise themselves.

  6. I have 15 yr old girl, a 4 yr old girl and a 2 yr old boy living with me , I’ve also raised my stepson 18, so I deal with a lot of issues here and there. But the principal of letting your kids feel their emotions still applies to all my kids, we talk about them, acknowledge them, investigate if their the right response (teenagers) and then calm down and talk about what caused them. Usually these sessions end with laughter and hugs or at least a little bit of peace.

    As for the homework part, my parents yelled at me to do homework when I was in school and it did nothing but make me resent them and the homework. My daughter struggled in school this year because up until now she’s been smart enough to coast, now she has to learn to study and do homework. I never yelled or tried to I force her, but I did tell her the consequences of her actions and she isn’t feeling too proud of her marks at the moment or that she has to take a remedial math class in grade 10. It was hard for me to watch, knowing she could do better and knowing that her teachers did fail her too a little bit, but she is now determined to work her way out of the remedial math and get her grades up. I also took her to some college info sessions to give her motivation. But yelling, taking away her phones, etc. none of that did anything. She’s the one who has to do the work so it has to be her choice.

  7. Thanks for an opportune post – need to remember this every day! Great blog, thanks for sharing.

  8. I am super late to this club as my daughter is 8, and I feel like an awful parent most of the time. Just tonight she was in tears over homework, and I certainly didn’t handle it well. I really want to become a more respectful, patient parent.

  9. avatar Vicki Burgess says:

    “and the joy is in the journey>”

    Yes it is and kids will prove that everytime. They love the process of play and art, not the product!

  10. Hello
    This is an interesting reading. I just want to ask if this is a published research article or not????
    I’m just researching for (8) relevant articles for my assignment..

    Thanks

    1. No, there is not published research on respectful parenting as a whole, though recent studies support many of the individual aspects of this approach.

  11. Hi Janet,

    My son is 26 months old. He was a late walker as per milestones – started walking when he was 19.5 months old. We go out for walks everyday and he loves and looks forward to that time. He happily walks for a long period of time and I’m proud of his progress. He does not yet wish to step up and down curbs or try crawling up the slide and is not yet jumping or running. By his body language I know it is because he is scared. I am not sure how to encourage him to try these things. I take him out and to the playground a couple of times a day to give him the opportunity to experiment but he is showing no inclination to try the above mentioned activity. I don’t force him to try anything. I am late to rie and have your books which have been very helpful. Any advice you can give me would be greatly appreciated. Also can you recommend additional books that would help me with my toddler aged son. I see several geared towards infant but not for a child my son’s age.

    1. Hi Neh,

      My advice is not to hold his hand and help him walk down steps, which will give him a false sense of balance and ability. Instead, I would carry him down or, alternatively, give him time to experiment (if you have the time) while you spot him from below. This should always be his choice. From there, trust, trust, trust him to do this in his way and time.

  12. This was a much needed read. We do our best with respectful parenting. But this is where i struggle: not letting her push me away (or taking it personally) and letting her take the initiative on completing tasks that are her “responsibility” – which is the language we try to use. Ultimately, I end up nagging or pushing her to get things done. I’m having trouble getting out of this habit or finding an alternative since there is the expectation that she take care of her grades, etc and also maintain her living area (bedroom, clothes, bathroom). Sure if she doesn’t do her work she does poorly in the class and the uncomfortable but natural consequence is she may have to repeat it. But I have trouble with her doing her other responsibilities without pushing. When she doesn’t fulfill that expectation, I don’t know what the natural consequence should be and where it fits in with what I can handle since letting it get really dirty or gross is not an acceptable result. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  13. thank you for your wonderful blog. I feel like even though I came across your work earlier, I have found it immeseley difficult to let go of the control and my daughter is now 25 months od and most definitely relies on me for quite a lot of the time even in play. I desperately need some help. So for example she should be able to take her socks off at least but waits for me to take them off. I have tried to acknowledge and say that I can see its frustrating for you but she seems to insist I take them off. This is one example amongst many! I am going to try very hard to bite my lip and not control but would love some practical tips on how i can re-educate her to think she can do it herself. Please advise. Many thanks in advance.

    1. Thank you for all your kind words, Rae! I’m working on a post in response to your question. I hope it helps!

      1. Hi Janet!

        Thank you for everything you do! For some reason there is a bar in front of what I am writing, so will have to make this short. Could you please provide the link to the post in response to Rae Bowdler’s question that you mention above? I suppose it should be out now as this was from 2013. So many thanks again for the guidance you provide. Incredibly grateful to you.

  14. Hi Janet thank you so much for this article. I have a 14 year old boy and an 18 year old boy who argue constantly. My oldest son will be gratuating and I would love to make their relationship better before its too late. And I feel like I’m losing my mind sometimes. Any suggestions would be welcomed.
    Thank you,
    Missie

  15. avatar Cecily Young says:

    Hooray for all you wonderful parents of older kids starting to look at things differently! Don’t worry, I’m 35 and would still be so grateful if my mum was able to get on board with some of these ideas haha. It’s never, never too late ❤

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