Last week, I got into a huge argument with one of my daughters. Big news, I know. It’s the end of the school year, and we are all limping to the finish line, barely in tact. Actually, it looks more like this:
This particular dear child had been demanding and sassy all week, and with every interaction, I was barely restraining myself from losing my grip. My patience for her pre-teen attitude had withered away, and so it happened… the inevitable freak out.
I yelled at her, climbing high on to the untouchable podium of parenthood, and told her that she was being rude, sassy and disrespectful. I threw in the appropriate amount of veiled threats, couched with “YOUNG LADY” and “LITTLE GIRL” and finger wagging. I told her in no uncertain terms that her tone with me had better stop, or she would find herself without a lot of fun in the coming weeks.
I really let her have it.
She burst into tears, of course. And I was mad and prickly, so I was not in the mood to hold her while she cried. I took some deep breaths, tightening myself for the onslaught of her righteous indignation.
But she simply said, “I don’t understand.” I could see the sincerity in her brimming eyes.
This took me by surprise. I had been explicitly clear.
“Why are you allowed to talk to me that way, but I am not allowed to use that tone with you?” she cried.
I flailed. Something in her words went deep, and found a raw nerve. I was shocked to recognize that I understood and agreed with her.
The fact that I agreed, that it made sense… it was too much for me. I gathered my wits about me, raking in the reasons I should stand my ground.
RESPECT. And ADULTS. And AUTHORITY. And RULES. And RESPECT.
And she will be a TEENAGER someday. Lord, save us.
The demand for respect as the adult won out, and I rose up to my feet, hands on hips, to tell her how she must show respect because I am her mother, and she is a child and she must learn to show respect to adults and people who have authority!
I am her mother, and I demand respect!
She cried some more, and I felt like a barbarian, and we got on with our night.
I tried to move on, get over it. I gathered evidence that made me feel justified. I mentally reviewed all the gross memes on Facebook, about the “olden days,” and how kids were so much more respectful of adults… and what is the world coming to? Like these:
But there was this nagging knowing inside me, poking at the truth. I had been using a “tone” with my children over the past few days, or weeks even. A tone that says, “I’m so tired of dealing with this,” or a tone that speaks, “You are annoying me!” or “Hurry UP!” A tone of general exhaustion and irritation, where manners and kindness are lost in my coarse, tired demands.
I hear it in my voice, as I tell them to get in the car. AGAIN. Or pick up their back packs. Or close the door. Or go to bed. Or to stop FIGHTING FOR THE LOVE OF HUMANITY.
I hear that edge creep into my voice, and it has stayed. So even when I simply ask for a hug, or tell them goodnight, it is there.
I realized I have been commanding my children to have more respect and more control than I posses. I want my daughter to lose the attitude and that disrespectful tone in her voice, but I have been unsuccessful in showing her the same respect during these stressful and strenuous times. Not only is our relationship out of balance, her disrespect was important for me to notice rather than rage at. She stepped up and challenged me to investigate what I believe about respect.
So I have given it much thought, lately. Respect is a word thrown around rather carelessly and is often spoken about with a very contemptuous and entitled attitude. There are many generations that believe that today’s youth have lost respect for authority. And others who believe that respect is not freely given, but earned.
Social media sites are teeming with declarations like this, which serve to perpetuate ineffectual beliefs about respect.
I was shocked to uncover some of my own privileged ideas about respect. It isn’t something I would have been able to own, or recognize in myself just a few weeks ago.
I felt ashamed to recognize that I would not speak to my husband or a friend the way I had been speaking to my children. In that admission lies the notion that my authority and superiority over them justifies my behavior… I felt sickened by the ugliness my inquiry revealed.
In my careful examination, I began to see deeply ingrained ideas about respect that do not serve us well. So, I set out to redefine my beliefs about respect.
A reset button, of sorts.
#1 Respect is not a hierarchy. There is no human being that deserves more respect and deference than another. We are all deserving of basic politeness and compassion by virtue of our inherent worth as human beings. Therefore, I do not believe children must show respect to their elders. They must be taught that respect is at the core of basic human decency. Age is irrelevant. One day old, or one hundred years old. A homeless man or a wealthy billionaire. A janitor or the President of the United States. Their worst enemy or their best friend. Their annoying little sister, and yes… their mom.
#2 Respect for one another does not mean you hold their behavior in high regard. We can feel disrespectful about abhorrent and hateful actions. For bigotry and scorn. But even the perpetrators of actions we disdain should be treated with respect. Because at the root of pain, anger, and negativity…there is a hurting person. A person aching to be seen, to be heard, to feel loved. And showing them disrespect as a human being only advances their hate.
#3 There is a difference between disagreeing/arguing and disrespect. As a parent, this detail is crucial. Because I must not view my child’s disagreement as a form of disrespect. I want my girls to find their voice… to stand up for themselves… to bravely challenge things…to seek understanding. I must not contradict this value with a demand for their agreement or silence. Honing these skills must start at home, with their father and I, people who will give them a safe place to practice respectfully disagreeing, taking a stand, advocating for themselves, sometimes forcefully.
#4 Respect is not earned. It should be given freely, as it stems from the understanding that we are all parts of a greater whole. It is our way of honoring the human experience, of employing empathy and compassion for every person we interact with. It is an acknowledgement of the nugget of precious truth at our core… we respect others as we respect ourselves. The level of respect you show others is a reflection of the love and honor you have for your self.
#5 Disrespect is a symptom. Often, it is a reflection of poor communication or unexpressed, repressed emotion. It is an aching call to be recognized as valuable. My daughter was being disrespectful to me… it was a reflection of the disrespectful treatment I was showing her… I was overlooking her.
We can never insist on more respect from our children than we are capable of manifesting for ourselves.
A week after our fight, I went on a field trip with my daughter. On the way home, we cuddled up in our bus seats, I pulled out a surprise stash of her favorite candy, and I fessed up. I told her I was wrong. I had not been treating her with respect.
This was hard.
I felt as though I was conceding some age-old battle between parent and child. The fear tried to rear up, the fear that told me that if I do not command respect from my child without fail, she will grow into a teenage monster and make our lives a living hell.
So naturally, I stuffed myself with peanut M&M’s and shouldered on.
I thanked her for being my mirror, always showing me the way to a better self. I told her how powerful she was, how I felt honored to be with her. I promised her that I would be more mindful of the level of respect I show her. I told her that I firmly believe that if you want to be respected, you must embody that respect for yourself, and then let it reflect in your treatment of others.
And we finished with a hug, some sour patch kids, and the most important message of respect I believe can ever be delivered from one human being to another…
I see you, my love.
I really, truly, see you.