Inside: Respectful parenting sounds good…but exactly what is respectful parenting? Learn five core beliefs respectful parents tend to share, how it differs from permissive parenting, and why it’s so dang hard to be a respectful parent today.
When I first started parenting, I was probably the farthest from respectful parenting you can possibly be. Those I looked to for parenting advice presented me with an authoritarian parenting paradigm, focusing primarily on obedience and control.
I spent an extraordinary amount of energy on training my children to obey perfectly when given a command. This started as early as one-years-old. I also set a LOT of arbitrary rules, mostly revolving around my own preferences, needs and wants.
I hated being a parent.
Finally, when my oldest children were four and two, I held their baby brother in my arms and willed him not to grow up so that I wouldn’t need to start controlling his behavior.
That thought – wishing my baby wouldn’t grow up – was my big red flag, my clue that something wasn’t right. That’s when I knew I was done with authoritarian parenting.
But it took me a long while to find my way to respectful parenting. I had a lot to unlearn, and absolutely no idea where to look for alternatives.
Perhaps it’s because I started out on one end of the parenting spectrum that I’ve swung quite sharply to the other side, not to permissive parenting (although I’m sure I dipped my toe in those waters for a bit while I was trying to find my way), but to respectful parenting.
And now I love being a parent.
Does it still have its challenging moments? Yes. But I choose respectful parenting challenges over authoritarian parenting challenges any day of the week.
Note: I chose to describe our parenting style as respectful parenting, not gentle parenting. They definitely overlap, but for whatever reason, the term respectful parenting feels more authentic to what we do. Choose whatever term works best for you!
Related: The Best Respectful Parenting Books Every New Parent Needs
Respectful Parenting 101: 5 Core Beliefs That Guide Our Parenting
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If I had to define respectful parenting in just a couple sentences, I would define it this way:
Respectful parents prioritize connection with their children and treating them the way they – adults – would want to be treated. They reject anything that interferes with connection and respect, including, but not limited to control, shame, judgment and punishment.
Hopefully, this list of five core beliefs helps you understand more what respectful parents believe about children and how they interact with them based on those core beliefs.
This is what respectful parenting means to ME. I don’t claim to know everything about it: I’m just one very human parent, still learning.
But from all my reading on respectful parenting over the past several years, these five things stand out, and they are the parenting principles I do my best to live by.
I couldn’t possibly cover every scenario here, so feel free to ask questions in the comments.
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1. Respectful parents believe that their child is a whole human being, worthy of the same respect adults take for granted. Just because they are developmentally different than adults doesn’t mean they deserve to be treated with less respect.
This first core belief is the one that receives the most pushback from adults and parents. Children deserve to be treated with the same respect and honor as adults. Say what?!
Yes, they do. Simply put: children are people, too.
Are they developmentally different? Yes, but that doesn’t mean they need to be treated with less honor or respect. They are humans that deserve to be spoken to with kindness (and receive apologies when the adults around them screw up).
But over and over, I see adults treat children as lesser beings, beings that need constant correction for their actions and their speech, sometimes even with physical correction. And adults feel entitled – even obligated – to dish out that correction simply because children are children.
I’ll be blunt: it often reminds me of the way dog owners speak to their dogs. And while we’re here, it’s 2022. Spanking needs to stop, y’all. No child deserves to be hit. Ever.
Do you like being constantly commanded to do things, expected to jump when someone says jump? Even in work settings, most adults expect a polite request, rather than a direct command.
Do you want to be corrected constantly? Reminded publicly, in front of your friends and family, to say, “Thank you,” even when you forget? No, you don’t.
Why not? Maybe because public correction is shameful and embarrassing. And unless you have consented to be part of something where direct commands are the norm – the military, a class you signed up for – those don’t usually feel so great, either.
Do child sometimes need correction, just as adults do? Sure.
But respectful parents might offer gentle reminders, make polite requests or model culturally acceptable behavior, similar to how one would treat a foreigner who comes across as rude because they don’t yet understand culturally appropriate behavior.
Shame, control and disrespect are never the answer, at least not in a respectful parenting paradigm.
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2. Respectful parents believe in honoring their child’s bodily autonomy as much as possible.
I am not in my child’s body. I don’t know when they are feeling hungry or when they are feeling cold unless they tell me.
Babies cry to indicate those things, and often parents will respond to those cries. They will offer a bottle or add an extra layer. When the cries stop, parents know that they have successfully met the need.
But when toddlers or older children say, “I’m not cold. I don’t want a coat,” parents don’t respond the same way. They might say, “It’s cold out – you need to wear a coat even if you don’t want it.” They do not honor their bodily autonomy.
When children say, “I’m not hungry,” parents might encourage them to eat, anyway, simply because it’s dinner time.
Or children might not want to wear shoes at the park, but parents insist on them wearing shoes anyway out of fear that they will get hurt, or belief that it must hurt not to wear shoes because it hurts us as adults who are used to shoes.
Respectful parents believe that teaching children to listen to and to honor their bodies (and their hearts, for that matter) is crucial for healthy development.
They also know that their children are still learning how to listen to their bodies. So one minute they might insist they aren’t cold, but the next, they come running back to the house for a coat because it is, in fact, cold outside.
Respectful parents also know that preparing for these types of learning scenarios is just smart parenting.
So they will probably bring along the coat (or offer the choice to carry it or wear it), just in case their child feels cold later. They will have healthy, easy options if their child isn’t hungry at adult mealtimes.
I’ll admit that this particular aspect of respectful parenting is made easier with our homeschool lifestyle. Children in school must eat at prescribed times, even if they aren’t hungry, or wear shoes even if they’re uncomfortable because schools rely on uniformity to function.
3. Respectful parents don’t believe in using punishments or rewards to control behavior. They choose empathy, respect and connection, instead.
Experts on either side of the parenting spectrum offer various methods of get your kids to do what you want them to do.
“Take away screens for bad behavior.”
“Want your kids to read more? Offer prices and incentives.”
Respectful parents see these systems and acknowledge them for what they are: trying to control another human being’s behavior. And for the most part, we reject anything that is attempting to manipulate behavior. We believe that the desire for freedom and autonomy is built into every human being from birth; no one likes to be controlled (hello 2021 & 2021).
If I want my kids to do something – or to stop doing something – I first evaluate why I want them to do it (or not do it). If I decide it’s a legitimate request, I’ll simply tell them how I feel.
For example, when we were renegotiating household work, I had to have a longer discussion with one of my children who, let’s just say, doesn’t volunteer help as often as his siblings.
I asked him if he thought it was fair for him to not contribute, and the smart, reasonable human being that he is, he acknowledged that no, it wasn’t fair, and yes, he needed to contribute. He was offered a few different jobs, and he asked for one that suited his personality.
You know what happens when a child has buy in and choice? Punishments and reward systems (unless chosen by the child) aren’t required – only respect, empathy and connection.
4. Respectful parents believe in focusing more on themselves as role model, and less on critiquing their children’s behavior.
Children closely watch the adults around them to learn appropriate behavior. So respectful parents focus a lot of their energy on modeling that behavior, whether that be screen time habits or managing emotions.
“Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.”W.E.B. Dubois
Instead of nagging my kids to get off screens and get outside, I try to contemplate my own screen time habits and whether or not I spend time outside.
I still might gently encourage them to get outside if it’s a beautiful day. But even better? I go outside myself and invite them along, an invitation they are free to decline.
Instead of correcting toddlers who don’t say please and thank you, I prefer to model manners in my interactions with my child. It’s amazing how quickly they pick it up, some faster than others
If I want my kids to be readers? I read. But I also accept that they might not love reading the way I do because they’re different people.
If I want my kids to engage with me and stop looking at their screens, I focus on my own screen use while they’re talking to me (I confess that sometimes it’s not good!).
Whatever behavior I think I want to see, and whatever behaviors I don’t want to see, I look at myself first.
What we see in others that we don’t like is often a reflection of what bothers us about ourselves. If something my kids are doing is bothering me, I can almost always find instances where my kids are simply mirroring my own not-so-awesome behavior.
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5. Respectful parents believe in working collaboratively with their children to find solutions that work for the whole family (not just the parents). They believe that every family member has unique needs and perspectives that deserve equal consideration.
Many people assume that respectful parents don’t have any boundaries at all, and that’s just not true.
Respectful parents develop their personal boundaries in the context of family, being careful to distinguish between boundaries and personal preferences. They consider everyone’s unique needs and perspectives, striving to find solutions that work for everyone.
Obviously, the parents are the ones who need to take care of the entire family, and sometimes that does mean that certain choices are off the table.
For example, if both parents work full-time during typical 8-5 hours, and daycare is the only childcare option, children will not be free to follow their own circadian rhythms. They will need to adapt to the adults’ schedule.
Like I tell my kids, sometimes the only choice you have is your attitude: to come and have fun or come and not have fun.
But whenever possible, respectful parents consider everyone’s needs, including their own, equally. They reject top down, power-based systems where the parent’s needs and preferences matter, and the child’s don’t.
Our kids happen to have a lot more freedom now than they used to because my husband works from home (and I do, as well), so when one child wants to do an activity, I can leave some children at home. In the past, they may have needed to come along, even when they didn’t want to.
We also can function on a later bedtime schedule better suited to their circadian rhythms because we homeschool and because I am a natural night owl. If I was an early riser, we might have needed to find other solutions.
An example of respectful parenting with boundaries…
If I happen to forget to ask my child what cup they would prefer for their beverage, and they ask for a different cup, I don’t mind pouring the beverage into a different cup.
It’s a simple, easy thing to accommodate their request; I simply rinsed out the old cup and put it back in the cabinet.
But if the cup they want is dirty, I will probably say, “That’s fine, but the cup you want is dirty. You could come wash it, or you could use the cup I already had, instead.”
They are free to have their own big feelings about the choice they need to make, and I’ll empathize with them out loud about how hard it feels when you can’t have the cup you want. (If this one is tough for you, just replace “your go-to coffee beans are out of stock” with “favorite cup”, and you might be able to empathize a little more).
But you can still stand firm in the choices you’ve offered based on your own personal boundaries, and let the child choose when they’re ready.
My former, authoritarian parenting self might have rejected the request simply because I’m the parent, you’re the child. End of story. But not anymore because as a human being, that’s not how I want to be treated, and I don’t believe that children deserve to be treated that way either.
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Respectful Parenting Is Not Permissive Parenting
Let’s go back and address what many people assume: that respectful parenting is permissive parenting. The key differences are a lack of personal boundaries and shielding from natural consequences.
Above, I mentioned that respectful parents work collaboratively with their children to find solutions that work for everyone, not just the children.
Permissive parenting tends to focus entirely on making the children happy, having no boundaries at all, personal or otherwise, even in settings outside their own home. They also tend to shield their children from natural consequences.
For example, permissive parents might look the other way or just not care if their children are blatantly breaking museum rules. Or they might pay speeding tickets, instead of requiring the child to pay them.
I’ll give you an example of natural boundary setting that happens in our home.
With food, for example, we have very few food rules, other than having a few fruits and vegetables a day. Our children are mostly free to eat what they like, but we talk regularly about the effects of food choices.
If you want to offer food freedom within boundaries, consider carefully what kinds of food that come into the house on a regular basis and establish a rhythm that works for your unique family.
Their choices are limited by the foods I choose to bring into the house (and the amount of certain foods), and I only grocery shop once a week. I have a general budget that I set – another natural boundary.
I do ask if they want anything at the grocery store, but they are generally limited to one choice each.
When eating throughout the day, I’ll sometimes ask them to make a different food choice or to have a fruit or vegetable after eating a not-so-healthy food, but they will often come to the same conclusion on their own. They’ll say, “I ate too much candy. I need to have something healthy now.”
Another example is around screens and bedtimes.
We have mostly unlimited screen time, but we do have a “screens off” time at night, an hour or two before bed. They know the scientific reasoning behind this request – that screens make it harder to fall asleep.
With bedtimes, I still need to put two of my children to bed at night. The older three read or listen to audiobooks before bed.
I don’t tell them when to go to sleep, but do ask that when they finish doing dishes, they spend the rest of the night in their rooms because I need peace and quiet in the main living areas after a certain hour. Sometimes they forget, but mostly, they get it and respect it.
Finally, respectful parents set carefully considered personal boundaries and help their children learn to respect the different rules that exist in public spaces or spaces that are not our own.
For example, at our house, my kids are free to eat almost anywhere, but at someone else’s house, they may have different rules, and they can respect that (maybe with a tad bit of whining, depending on the age, but whining is normal!).
Our kids still experience disappointment and consequences, but I don’t believe they need to experience those things every day, all day, in order to become kind, responsible adults.
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Respectful Parenting Is Hard Because It’s Not Mainstream…Yet
When I started looking for resources beyond the traditional authoritarian/authoritative parenting narratives, I had a really hard time finding anything. I’ll eventually share the list of respectful parenting books that changed my life, but finding them was not easy whatsoever.
Respectful parenting (and gentle parenting) is a new frontier. Older generations weren’t parented this way, and my goodness, they seem absolutely hell bent on telling us all the reasons why we’re screwing up our kids by raising them this way.
Figuring out a way of being that is so totally foreign when you’ve been steeped in control-based systems and relationships your entire life is HARD. Give yourself grace to make mistakes on the way to becoming a respectful parent.
And here’s to respectful parenting being the norm a few decades from now!
Finally, I’m 100% human. I spent years growing up under and practicing authoritative/authoritarian parenting. So yes, I make mistakes all.the.time. I have days where I slip back into old habits, days where I yell and days where I boss my kids around the house.
But when I do, I own it and apologize to my kids. Then I get back up the next day and try again. And that’s all you can do really.
I’m not a perfect respectful parent. I’m just a mom with five kiddos, trying to get closer and closer to the ideals listed above, doing my darnedest to love my kids every day and raise kind, empathetic humans.
Do you have questions about respectful parenting in action? Drop them in the comments, and I will do my best to answer them.
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Hi!! Thank you for the offer to answer questions. I really love the ideas you have put forward. I am struggling to start off with my 2yo, however! What do I do when she hits her baby brother? I typically will firmly say, “no, we don’t hit. We are always gentle with touching others.” I also often tell her that now baby is feeling sad/crying because she hit him. But she doesn’t really seem to get it. She just ignores me or talks over me or runs off. The same thing with not coming with me when I’ve asked her to come along (let’s go to the car, it’s bathtime, please come out of my room, etc.). She also has a hard time with me not constantly holding her to go from room to room. I tell her, “Mama can’t hold you all the time. But you can hold my hand!” She almost always melts down. And what about straight-up defiance?! She’ll throw her spoon on the floor, I’ll tell her that food/dishes don’t belong on the floor, & pick it up. Then she’ll do it again. I warn her that if she does it again, I will be taking it away for a while. But then she can’t eat!? These are just a few examples. I’m sorry for being so long-winded! I would love specific feedback but also just general tips for respectfully parenting toddlers in general, haha. Thank you!!
Hi Rachel! That sounds like a struggle for sure. Juggling a toddler with a new baby is always hard. I’ll do my best to address a few of these scenarios…
1) Hitting younger siblings is typical behavior, as adjusting is hard. I would move the baby out of reach, and keep doing what you’re doing with distraction. “We don’t hit” or “our hands are not for hitting”, and then quickly move on “Do you want to read a book?” She’s most likely looking for attention and feeling angry about how much of your attention the baby is getting. She might not get it right away – running away isn’t a sign she doesn’t get it, just that she wants to avoid those challenging feelings/conversations.
2) With the spoon on the floor, I would simply take it away, esp. if you’ve talked about it before. No words, no dramatics, just put it in the sink. I would possibly adjust the food choices for a while – unless she’s eating soup, most food can be eaten with hands. If she throws food after that, I’d say “all done” and move on. We graze a lot in our family, so I would offer things like cheese sticks or apple slices (one at a time) later if she’s hungry. Eventually, if you do the same thing each time, she’ll get the idea that if she wants to keep her spoon (which she might not), she needs to not throw it.
3) Toddler tantrums are extremely normal. It’s rough, I know. I do sometimes move my kids – my 3-year-old is going through another intense tantrum phase for no apparent reason. I’ll say “I’m so sorry you’re feeling sad/mad. You can definitely feel that way, but we need to go scream in another room.” I’ll stay if I can, but if it hurts my ears, I’ll say I need to go in another room and leave the door open (obviously only leave them alone if it’s safe to do so).
4) Distract, redirect, distract, redirect. That’s my go-to with toddlers. You can say a phrase like “We don’t XYZ” first, but then brightly offer a new activity or book or show or snack. “Would you like a snack?” “Let’s read together”.
5) That’s tough with not coming along. If you aren’t carrying the baby, I would try picking her up and going wherever OR offer choices if possible or make it a game. “Can you beat mommy to the car/bathroom?” “Do you want to hop like a bunny to the car or run like a fox?”
For more about toddlers see: Surviving the Terrible Twos
These books, particularly the first one have more specific examples (if you’re not religious, it could still help – she has tons of practical examples): Respectful Parenting Books
Hope this helps!
This resonates. The one that has been most on my mind lately is #4. It is so freeing to trust that if I spend my own time modeling how I want my children to live in the world, it will pay infinitely more dividends than if I spend twice the energy (or more!) trying to control how my children spend their time.