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Is Respectful Parenting Rewarding Our Kids' Bad Behavior?



The vast majority of adults today were not raised with any form of Respectful parenting. So there are a lot of uninformed or misinformed opinions out there currently. Lately, that’s mostly seen in the media response to “gentle” parenting. For whatever reason, “gentle parenting” has become a buzzword and folks are having a hay day hating on it, though so far I’ve yet to see a single critique actually describe gentle parenting. But I can accept that the branding is just not going to work for that phrase.


Plus, I for one, have never resonated with the word “gentle” because I’m not a particularly gentle person and parenting is anything but gentle. It’s gritty and messy and chaotic and badass! It’s the most challenging and rewarding and all-consuming job in the entire world. It will highlight every single unhealed part of you and force you to face them, accept them, and begin to heal them. That’s intense, not gentle. No, I don’t feel like a gentle parent. But I can tell you what I AM…


1) I am respectful of myself. I am always learning and growing. I’m working to accept and even love my shadow sides so I can be more balanced and less reactive or controlled by emotional flashbacks. I take time to notice my feelings and receive their messages. I take ownership of my needs and am open to lots of strategies for making sure they are met. 


2) I am respectful of my partner. He’s my friend. He’s got my back. He’s in the trenches with me. He believes in me, supports me, works for our family, and provides insight and consideration that I wouldn’t necessarily see. He’s teaching our children what respectful relationships look like and priming them to accept nothing less from their future partners. 


3) I am respectful of my friends. My children won’t hear me say something about my friends that I wouldn’t say to them. They don’t hear me talk about my friends much because “about” instead of “to” tends to feel gossipy. 


4) I am respectful of people I encounter day-to-day. I smile at the cashier, I help the woman get the heavy thing off the shelf, I lend a hand to the mom at the park. I let people into traffic, thank the front office staff for scheduling my appointment, wave at the UPS guy. I genuinely just aim to leave the world a little better and see opportunities for kindness and consideration often. 


So why on earth, if I respect all of those people in my world, would I not also respect my very own children? These little souls I brought to this Earth who are counting on me for their attachment needs, their emotional support, their safety, and security - how could I consider treating them of all people with anything less than respect? Yeah, I couldn’t think of a reason either. So I am:


5) Respectful of my children. They are whole people from birth who deserve to be seen, safe, soothed, and secure. They have valid thoughts, ideas, wishes, and needs. They deserve a safe home to learn and grow in. They deserve a confident leader. They deserve to be seen in the best possible light as they struggle with underdeveloped brains, unique needs, stressful circumstances, etc. They deserve to know that I will help them to do better when they mess up. That I will accept their repair if it’s with me and help them to repair if it’s with someone else. They are worth the work it took for me to heal enough of my own trauma so they don’t have to carry it too. My children deserve a lot. So do yours. I imagine that’s why you’re here. 


Now, this all has to do with my intent, aim, and goals. This does not reflect some level of perfection. I am also a wounded human who does get emotional flashbacks, who feels overwhelmed and under-resourced at times, who gets impatient and impulsive and can’t think clearly when triggered. Here’s the good news - you can still be Respectful even when all of those things are true. Part of being in a respectful relationship is to take accountability for your actions and the impact they had and to make repairs with the people you care about. That conflict-repair cycle is what lets them feel safe with you. You show them that you can be trusted to value them above your ego and that even though you can’t be perfect (we’re humans, not a math equation), they can count on you to come back and make it right when you mess up! So here comes the question: 


“What about rewarding bad behavior? I don’t want my kids to think they can “get away with” xyz, or to think that “it’s ok” to xyz.”



This is where my degree in Education comes in handy! Here are a few things that were not common knowledge when we were children but are firmly established now with brain scans and data on the developing brains of children.


1) Children do well when they can. They are not “choosing” bad behavior. It’s happening to them, overriding their logical brain with their nervous system dysregulation. 


2) Behavior is communication. It is not the problem underneath, it’s just a symptom of the underlying issue(s). 


3) We do not control how our nervous system reacts. Fight/flight/freeze/fawn just happen. We can learn skills to get back to regulation, but we will not be able to prevent all dysregulation. 


4) A brain in a fear and stress state, in fight/flight/freeze/fawn - cannot make rational, thought-out decisions. Kids are not “choosing” to misbehave, the logic is offline in that moment so they can’t consciously choose. 


5) The Behviorism approach, when used between parent and child, does not get to the root of the problem, so carrot and stick approaches may seem to alleviate the problem right in front of you, but it creates more problems that pop up later, like cutting off the head of the Hydra. 


6) Little brains are developing until age 25/26 in neurotypical people. (Even longer for ADHD folks and possibly other neurotypes.)


7) The main part of the brain that’s underdeveloped is in charge of the Executive Functioning skills…i.e. Self-Control. This brings you back to #1 - kids don’t suck at this stuff because they want to or choose to - they are lacking development and skills and resources. When they have the skills, resources, and development, they automatically do better. 


Because this information wasn’t available to our parents, we were not raised with this understanding. Our brains formed believing that if we did something our parents deemed to be “bad” it was our fault and we needed to suffer in some small (or big) way to “teach” us.


Shame and suffering imposed by others are TERRIBLE teachers - at least for what we WANT to teach. All kinds of unintended lessons happen. We can learn that the world isn’t safe, that our parents can’t be trusted, that we are bad at our core, that we deserve mistreatment, that we are failures, that we have no one to help us, that we need to shut down, shut up, and ignore our body and/or needs. The consequences of these beliefs last a lifetime.


To break those generational curses we have to break through the fear that feeds them and install new beliefs.


1) Your child is already good, you don’t need to “make” them good. 


2) Because you live and model behavior every second of every day, your child either already knows when something they are doing “isn’t right” or they are too young to grasp morality anyway. Telling a 1-year-old not to hit “because that hurts mommy” does not compute for their level of development. But by 3, since you don’t hit them, they already know hitting isn’t the “right” thing, but they lack the development of the impulse control to always stop their physical body from demonstrating their overwhelm. Their behavior is about what they are capable of, not their moral philosophy. 


3) The concept of withholding love and affection is a tragedy that befell the United States (and likely other countries) as a tool to manipulate vulnerable children. It’s effective in the short term because we need that attachment to survive. REFUSE to participate! Never is tugging on your attachment to your child, threatening their sense of security in the world, a necessary tool. You can hold boundaries and still be attached, you can be mad and still be attached, you can feel hurt and still be attached. The point of the secure attachment is that it is constant no matter what your child does. 


4) Your child is doing their best. They want to learn. They are not your enemy. 


5) Children, as well as adults, do better when they feel better. (That does not mean avoiding big, loud, or long feelings. It means feeling them together until the nervous system feels safe.) Your child is HAVING a hard time and what they need most is to feel better so they can do better. 


6) Punishment only gets in the way of healthy learning. It creates little fissures in the trust between you and your child. How can they want to learn from you when you are the source of their hurt, rejection, or shame? You don’t need it. It was a simple solution to a multi-layered, complex, nuanced issue. A blunt tool perfect for the analogy, to a Hammer everything looks like a Nail. Throw the whole thing out. 


When you see your child as good, as doing their best, as always needing attachment no matter what. Then you are left with a person who is going to struggle because their brain isn’t fully formed, and a parent who is going to step in to guide, teach, model, and lead that child while their brain is maturing. 


Bad behavior shows areas that are missing skills. Bad behavior shows heightened stress and overwhelm. Bad behavior may be better labeled as “Maladaptive” behavior or strategy but I may not win that one with the general public.


So:

If skills are missing - teach the skills.

If the way they are meeting their need is harmful - collaborate to find other ways to meet those needs.

If the nervous system is dysregulated - co-regulate with them so their nervous system can calm. 

If there are too many stressors for them to handle - reduce the stressors. 

If you don’t know what is going on with them - get curious. 

If they don’t trust you right now, focus on your behavior - be safe, notice them, and be emotionally attuned. 

If they are too out of control to reach just yet - keep them and others safe until their logic comes back online. Then work on decoding what lead to that level of dysregulation to begin with.


Think of you and your child as a team. You’re learning Parenting while they are learning Living and together you will figure it out. Move from “doing to” to “doing with.” Keep your focus on “us” vs “the problem” and maintain curiosity about what their behavior is communicating, what they are struggling with underneath the obvious behavior, and what would empower them and make it so that they don’t need that behavior to meet that need anymore. 


This isn’t “rewarding bad behavior” any more than Insulin is a reward for diabetes. It’s simply what we need to learn, grow, thrive, and continue to do better. 


Go forth and connect without fear. It’ll feel better to all involved. 



P.S. This all involves feeling your feelings. All of them. Feelings are never “bad.” You and your children have every right to feel sad, disappointed, frustrated, angry, helpless, embarrassed, despair, grief, giddy, excited, overwhelmed, confused, annoyed, happy, grumpy, irritable, energized, pessimistic, optimistic, and neutral. 


It is a MYTH - that calm or stoic are the only “good” behaviors. 


How do you want to be treated when you’re desperately sad? Overwhelmed? Enraged? Would it help for your husband or wife to say “That is BAD behavior, what is wrong with you, go to the corner!” No of course not. What helps is, “Holy crap, this must be bad. You must really be struggling to be acting like this. I see you. I’m here for you.” I hope you’ve had the chance to experience that kind of response in your adult life. Love, validation, and support. As soon as you feel that, you can lean into that relational safety and get your feet back underneath you. Then you can repair if you lashed out and problem-solve with clarity and belief that you are worth the effort of finding solutions and because you have felt loved, you believe in yourself that you can do better with help. Our kids are people just like us. 


If you were raised in a home where feelings themselves were seen as bad behavior, that will be some of the Inner Child reparenting you’ll need to show up for your child without that baggage. Sitting with those feelings is an essential and often painful feeling that confuses parents into thinking that their kid is “being bad” when actually they are better attuned to their body and releasing the energy inside than we are! Learn from them. Embrace the waves, know they may feel huge, but they will get smaller. Trust that you can feel and still be ok, and you’ll be on your way to raising the 1st generation of emotionally intelligent adults who didn’t have to unlearn and relearn, but were actually raised that way from the start! Way to go!!


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