How can I get my children to do what I ask them to do?  This question is probably one of the most oft-repeated amongst parents.  We ask our children to do various things each day.  Here are some from my own family:

Sit with all four legs of the chair on the floor please.

Would you take your plate to the sink please?

It’s time to go out, could you please put on your socks and shoes?

Would you come here and help me tidy up these toys please?

For many, it comes down to respect.  Traditional wisdom holds that our children should respect adults’ greater wisdom and experience and that they should show that they respect us by listening to what we say and doing what we ask.  This week David Cameron was quoted as saying that children should rise when their parents and teachers walk into the room.  While giving a speech about education, the Prime Minister praised the return of “real discipline” in Britain’s schools.  Many commentators bemoan the lack of respect for adults among young people in Britain today.  Presumably, Cameron feels the way to restore such respect is to insist that children stand when adults, including teachers and parents, enter the room.

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When visitors come to our house, we always stand up to greet them.  Usually (because I’m American) there’s a hug and a kiss involved even if you’re British and not used to such over-the-top touchy feelyness– it’s my house so you just have to put up with it!  We stand up because we want to say hello, to show deference to our visitors and welcome them, and to exchange physical greetings (even if this only involves a head nod from my introverted husband).  Our children now do the same and enjoy welcoming visitors in this way.

My children do not stand when I enter the room because I have a different relationship with them than I do with visitors.  I don’t expect my children to show me deference in the same way.  Yes, I want them to respect me, but for me respect is different from deference.  Some parents feel very strongly that their children should show signs of deference as manifestations of respect, but that is not the case in my family.  I don’t always get my children to do what I want them to.  In fact, I wouldn’t classify them as ‘obedient’ children, though they are polite and kind and many people comment that they are very well behaved.

For me, respect is not borne of fear or adherence to a parent-child hierarchy.  Rather, respect is borne of love.  I want my children to willingly listen to my words and consider my requests because of filial love.  When I say with exasperation, “Why don’t they just listen to me?!” I know that what I am crying out for is not necessarily obedience (although in the short term I may think that’s exactly what I want!).  What I really want is for my children to experience the love I have for them, and for that unconditional gift of love to inspire them to live in communion with me.

Do you remember the first time you fell in love?  Do you remember how being loved by someone else made you feel special, unique and how you wanted to tell everyone how wonderful you felt?  Do you remember how the experience of being loved inspired you to reach out and love not just your lover but also other people who came into your path?    Being loved completely, for who we are at this very moment, and being held in the warmth of someone else’s gaze as a beautiful and treasured creation– nothing feels as good as this.  And when we feel full of delight, that delight radiates from us and inspires us to share the joy we feel.  When my lover asks me to pick up a newspaper for him, I do so joyfully and what’s more I buy him a chocolate bar and a can of Irn-bru (yes, he’s Scottish) because I know it will make him happy.  The love we share inspires me to do things to make him happy.

In the same way, I want my children to be inspired to work with me rather than against me because the experience of my love puts a spring in their step and strengthens their connection with me.  The thought of asking my children to stand when I enter the room runs contrary to the undercurrent of love that runs deep beneath the surface of our relationship.  In our family there is no upstairs/downstairs, no servant and master.  I accept that we are not equals in terms of age and experience, and for this reason they will easily forget that I asked them three times to take their muddy shoes off before running up the stairs.  If anything, accepting that we are not equals should have a greater effect on how I approach the situation (i.e., with greater understanding of their limits and capabilities, with more patience, with stronger hope that they will develop over time) than how they do.

Parents often share ‘what worked’ for them, talking about techniques learned from books or parenting gurus for ensuring that their children obey them.  I am always suspicious of this phrase, because the words ‘what works’ presupposes that there is a magic formula by which we can manipulate our children into submission.  To my mind, the only way is love.    It is not a magic formula, and my children do not always obey me.  But if my children rise as I enter the room it is not to show me deference, but to run to me and embrace me.  If the choice is between obedience and love, I know what I would rather.

Words © Lisa Hassan Scott, 2012.  For reprint permission contact the copyright holder.

Photo credit: “Snappy Salute” by Mike Beauregard, Flickr.


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