Showing respect towards elders is a much valued virtue in our society. This is shown in the way we address them. As soon as a child learns to speak, we are careful to teach him to address older people as Uncles and Aunties or their equivalent in the child's mother tongue.
Of course some families observe these rules more strictly than others. The Chinese even have different terms for maternal and paternal uncles and aunties. Generally, young children are expected to use the titles Uncles or Aunties on their parents' contemporaries. Non-compliance would be considered poor upbringing, an embarrassment to the parents.
The training ground for such attitude is the home. A child has to learn to respect his parents and other members of the family first before he can exhibit such behaviour outside the home. But today's parents are facing an increasingly difficult task of teaching such values to their children.
Permissive parenting, resulting in eroding of parental authority, can be confusing to both parents and children. We have a situation where parents do not exercise their authority and draw boundaries for their children. Thus they allow their children to rule the home, and them.
If we want our children to behave respectfully toward us, we have to mirror the respectful attitude to them. It doesn't work if we shout to them to stop shouting at us. The best way to learn is still by example.
Some of us grew up with overly strict parents who did not allow any expression of negative feelings, may over-compensate by being too liberal with our children. We need to be aware that both extremes do not make for good parenting.
Giving free rein to their emotions will not help our children grow up to be emotionally matured persons. Neither will the repressing of their emotions. Is there a legitimate expression of negative emotions? Yes, according to Dr James Dobson, a child should be encouraged to express his strong frustration, even resentment and anger in a "respectful manner”.
Question 1: You have described the nature of willfully defiant behaviour and how parents should handle it. But does all unpleasant behaviour result from rebellion and disobedience?
Answer: No. Defiance can be very different in origin from the "challenging” response I've been describing. A child's negativism may be caused by frustration, disappointment, fatigue, illness, or rejection and therefore must be interpreted as a warning signal to be heeded.
Perhaps the toughest task in parenthood is to recognise the difference between these behavioural messages. A child's resistant behaviour always contains a message to his parents, which they must decode before responding.
For example, a disobedient youngster may be saying, "I feel unloved now that I'm stuck with that screaming baby brother. Mom used to care for me; now nobody wants me. I hate everybody.” When this kind of message underlies the defiance, the parents should move quickly to pacify its cause. The art of good parenthood, then, revolves around the interpretation of behaviour.
Question 2 : My six-year-old has suddenly become disrespectful in her manner at home. She told me to "buzz off” when I asked her to do her homework, and she calls me names when she gets angry. I feel it is important to permit this emotional outlet, so I haven't tried to suppress it. Do you agree?
Answer: I'm afraid I don't. Your daughter is aware of her sudden defiance, and she's waiting to see how far you will let her go. If you don't discourage disrespectful behaviour now, you can expect some wild experiences during the adolescent years to come.
With regard to your concern about emotional ventilation, you are right in saying your daughter needs to express her anger. She should be free to say anything to you provided it is said in a respectful manner. It is acceptable to say, "I think you love my brother more than me,” or "You weren't fair with me, Mommy.”
There is a thin line between what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour at this point. The child's expression of strong frustration, even resentment and anger, should be encouraged if it exists. You certainly don't want her to bottle it inside. On the other hand, you should not permit your daughter to resort to name-calling and open rebellion.
"Mom, you hurt my feelings in front of my friends” is an acceptable statement. "You stupid idiot, why didn't you shut up when my friends were here?!” is obviously unacceptable.
If approached rationally, as described in the first statement, it would be wise for the mother to sit down and try to understand the child's viewpoint. She should be big enough to apologise to the child if she was wrong. If she feels she was right, however, she should calmly explain why she reacted as she did and tell the child how he or she can avoid a collision next time. It is possible to ventilate feelings without sacrificing parental respect, and the child should be taught how to do it. This communicative tool will be very useful later in life, especially in a possible future marriage.
Question 3 : The children in our neighbourhood are rude to one another and disrespectful with adults. This upsets me, but I don't know what to do about it. I don't have a right to discipline the children of my neighbours, so they get away with murder. How can I deal with this?
Answer: Parents in a neighbourhood need to learn to talk to each other about their kids – although that is difficult to do! There is no quicker way to anger one mother than for another woman to criticise her precious child. It is a delicate subject, indeed.
That's why the typical neighbourhood is like yours, providing little feedback to parents in regard to the behaviour of their children. The kids know there are no lines of communication between adults, and they take advantage of the barrier. What each block needs is a mother who has the courage to say to her neighbours, "I want to be told what my child does when she is beyond her own house. If she is a brat with other children, I would like to know it.
If she is disrespectful with adults, please mention it to me. I will not consider it as telling tales, and I won't resent your coming to me. I hope I can share my insights regarding your children, too. None of our kids is perfect, and we'll know better how to teach them if we can talk openly to each other as adults.”
Until this openness exists between parents living nearby, the children will create and live by their own rules in the neighbourhood.
Question 4 : I could use some advice about a minor problem we're having. Alex, my six-year-old son, loves to use silly names whenever he speaks to my husband and me. This past week it's been "You big hot dog.” Nearly every time he sees me now he says, "Hi, Hot Dog.” Before that it was "Dummy,” then "Monkey” (after he studied M for Monkey in school). I know it's silly and it's not a huge problem, but it gets so annoying after such a long time. He's been doing this for a year now. How can we get him to talk to us with more respect, calling us Mom or Dad instead of Hot Dog and Monkey?
Answer: Ordinarily, it would not be a big deal for a child to use a playful name for his parent. But that isn't what appears to be happening with Alex. It sounds more like a classic power game to me. And contrary to what you said, it is not so insignificant.
Your son is continuing to do something that he knows is irritating to you and your husband, yet you are unable to stop him. That is the issue. He has been using humour as a tactic of defiance for a full year.
It is time for you to sit down and have a quiet little talk with young Alex. Tell him that he is being disrespectful and that the next time he calls either you or his father a name of any kind, he will be punished. You must then be prepared to deliver on the promise, because he will continue to challenge you until it ceases to be fun. That's the way he is made. If that response never comes, his insults will probably become more pronounced. Appeasement for a strong-willed child is an invitation to warfare. This is the time to deal with it.
This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and extracted from "The Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide” by Dr. James Dobson with permission.
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