“Don’t be rude to your mother.” Back in the bad old days of patriarchy, this was a behavioural showstopper in many households. Dad said (or Mum threatened the ‘dad’ card) and so it was. Respect and obedience were expected and transgressions from the rules were viewed as mutiny – often punishable by hidings (involving straps, fly swats, wooden spoons etc). Fun times!
In other households, Mum ruled the roost with a steely eye and/or an iron fist – sometimes equally severely. The commonality was that under no circumstances were the kids in control. Parents had inalienable rights to make the rules and police them – however they damn well liked. If they weren’t fair, who cared? If they behaved badly themselves, that was their business – they were the adults who called the shots. Do what I say, not what I do, was the meme. Bloody confusing if you were a kid!
Fast forward to the mid-to-late 1900s when the idea of children’s rights really started gathering traction. They began to be seen as individuals with the same human rights as adults, and harsh physical punishment was rightly viewed as assault. Over a few decades, ‘hidings’ were replaced by removal of rights (being barred from certain activities for periods of time) – or other ‘soft’ consequences.
By the 2000s, the days of ruling the roost through fear were long gone (in a majority of homes). Children were no longer expected to be seen but not heard. Teenagers in particular started to assert themselves as they tried out their new sense of sovereignty for size. Some parents adjusted and upskilled, others railed against the changed balance of power and marched in the streets for the reinstatement of ‘smacking’.
The question that remains is: How do parents balance their teenagers’ rights to be loved, heard and respected with their own rights to set boundaries because they are older, wiser and pay the bills?
It might be helpful to start with a key rule for writers that goes: Don’t tell me – show me. This rule says action is key. When you show, you show the action of the story. When you tell, you describe things. Boring – puts readers to sleep! Same with parenting. It’s your actions – how you behave, not what you say/tell your teenager – that set the communication tone in your home.
You get the gist here: BE the person you want your child/teenager to respect. Check out how you communicate with your partner/whanau/friends. How do you resolve conflicts? How do you negotiate power? Start this personal enquiry when they are young because your child is watching you and learning the rules of negotiation and conflict resolution.
Don’t leave it until they hit the tweenage hormone tsunami that can render them incapable of rational thinking. They are already grappling with stepping into an adult world that smells of responsibility and hard work, and they are entering the gritty task of growing themselves into an individual – a process that can involve them throwing out their parent/s in sometimes very painful ways (we’ll talk about this Identity Crisis in a future article).
Be respectful about their thoughts and feelings and expect the same back. Remember, there’s a difference between challenging or questioning a parent’s view and being rude or disrespectful. In the end, we are talking about tone. You set it.
By Ruth Kerr and Richard Aston, parents to four adult children in a blended family. Ruth and Richard co-authored Our Boys – Raising strong, happy sons from boyhood to manhood based on their 15 years’ experience working at Big Buddy – a social agency that matches well-screened male mentors with fatherless boys.