We would all like to teach our kids to respect other people. The best way to do this is by modeling respectful and caring behavior in our own interactions. This helps the kid learn the value of respect and empathy and teaches them the skills of effective communication. Often, attentive listening is the most difficult thing for parents to do, because kids keep interrupting us, or our minds are preoccupied with all the errands that have to be done. In this case, it is okay to say to the kid “It’s difficult for me to listen to you now because I’m busying cooking, but I’ll be there in 10 minutes.” It’s better to set aside a clear time for communication than to listen half-heartedly or resentfully. Remember, though, that it’s difficult for kids to wait for long periods to be listened to.
Parental response to a kid saying they scored a goal at soccer
(without making eye contact) “Oh, that’s nice, dear. Now go and play with your sister (muttering to herself) What temperature do I cook the chicken at?”
Effective listening involves all of the non-verbals, such as maintaining eye contact, conveying understanding with our faces and voices, and using words to reflect our understanding. This parent is teaching her kid not to bother her, and that the things that are important to him are not important to her. This can make a kid feel alone and not good enough.
Parental response to a kid saying they scored a goal at soccer.
“You scored a goal. Fantastic! I can see you feel really proud of how you played. I want to hear all about how it went down today.”
This parent is displaying interest and enthusiasm; inviting the kid to elaborate and describe what happened. She is effectively tuning into the kid’s nonverbal expression and reflecting his feelings, thereby helping the kid to gain awareness of his own reactions. This type of response leads to the kid feeling that he is important and worthy of attention and care. This type of empathic resonance helps the kid to develop more interconnected brain pathways to process and make sense of emotion.
Parenting is a difficult job, and one in which we all make mistakes at times. Communicating effectively with our children takes time and energy. We need to become aware of our own feelings and automatic reactions, and slow down enough to be able to choose a more mindful way. Following through with consequences teaches kids limits, while listening and granting autonomy teach kids respect. Be sure to take care of yourself enough so that you have this type of mindful energy for your kids. This may mean re-examining your priorities and letting some things go. It is well worth it. Kids who have respectful, engaged, consistent parents learn to regulate their own emotions more effectively, feel better about themselves, and are able to have more loving relationships as adults.
One of the biggest lessons one learns as a parent is that young kids don’t naturally have empathy and consideration for your needs. They develop empathy slowly as they mature, by experiencing your empathy for them. That’s why the expectation that young kids walk in your shoes and see things from your point of view may not be reasonable. The failure to do so does not mean they are a bad or uncaring kid. They are just being a kid — focused on having fun in the moment, and testing their limits to learn about what is acceptable. Most parents are stressed multi-taskers who often forget to take care of themselves. This can lead to resentment when kids don’t seem to be cooperating. It is important to take some time to connect with your own feelings and calm down using deep breathing or self-talk before letting these emotions leak and derail your communication with your kid.
“I have asked you repeatedly to tidy up your toys and here they are, strewn all over the living room floor. Don’t you care at all? Can’t you see that I’ve been on my feet all day taking care of everybody’s needs. Now I have to trip over your toys or waste my time cleaning them up. What’s wrong with you that you’re so selfish?”
This parent is creating a lot of negative energy. While we can all empathize with her frustration, her communication is blaming and disrespectful. Calling a kid “selfish,” or implying there is something wrong with her is also harmful. Kids internalize these negative labels and begin to see themselves as "not good enough." Humiliating or shaming a kid can shape brain pathways in negative ways. Label the behavior as unacceptable, but the kid as still lovable.
“I see the toys haven’t been packed away yet and that makes me upset. It’s important for me to have an orderly house that we can all function in. All the toys that are out will need to go sleep in the garage tonight. You can earn them back by tidying away all of your toys tomorrow.”
This parent is clearly communicating her own feelings and needs without anger or blame. She is applying a clear, but not overly punitive consequence for the behavior and providing an opportunity for the child to try again tomorrow and succeed. She does not attribute any negative motivation to the kid or label his personality in negative ways.