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The What, How, and Why of Respectful Parenting

Positive parenting, peaceful parenting, respectful parenting, gentle parenting. Call it what you want, these concepts are all more alike than they are different. Odds are you’ve stumbled across one of these phrases in a blog post or from a friend. Maybe you’ve heard that this approach is permissive, that it’s raising up a generation of self-entitled brats. You might think it’s only effective with really easy kids. Or maybe you need some data to support parenting practices you already know in your gut are right for your family. 

Here’s the what, how, and why of respectful parenting:


Respectful parenting isn’t a strict set of how-tos. You can vaccinate or not vaccinate and be a gentle parent. You can breastfeed or bottle feed and be a positive parent. It isn’t dogmatic. It is, however, rooted in the data about human development.

At its heart, respectful parenting is a paradigm shift, not a set of skills. It’s a philosophy, not a list of rules. It will look different for each family, even each kid.  You can take the philosophy and data and make it your own.

I like how author Rebecca Eanes describes it, “Positive Parenting isn’t a method, a set of rules, or a ‘style.’ Positive Parenting is a belief, a way of living. We believe children should be treated with respect, free from fear of violence and shame, and guided with loving encouragement.”

As respectful parents, we collaborate, guide, and coach. We don’t view it as our job to intimidate and control. As Alfie Kohn describes it, we practice “working with” rather than “doing to” parenting.

Respectful parenting is rooted in child development and neuroscience. This means that expectations are age-appropriate, and the focus is on guiding our children in learning useful life skills that will better equip them for the inevitable challenges in life. It’s an investment in our children, and it can look a little messier in the short-term than a quick swat on the bum or five minutes in the corner. That’s because we take the long view.


Expectations are Age-Appropriate

Maintaining age-appropriate expectations requires us to have a clear understanding of child development. When we understand what’s realistic and what’s not, we are less likely to fall back on the cultural norm of punishing our children when they don’t behave like miniature adults.

Having age-appropriate expectations means realizing that impulsivity, outbursts, and self-centered behaviors are all absolutely normal for children. To be expected even. It also means trusting that when our children behave in unacceptable ways, they are exhibiting a fundamental lack of skill in a given area.

We maintain compassionate yet firm boundaries. We recognize when our kids need help, and we come to their aid rather than punish them for having a developing brain. Sometimes help can mean assisting in solving problems, but sometimes it might also mean recognizing when a need is being expressed through a difficult behavior.

Discipline, Not Punishment

Punishment is a shortcut. It’s easy, and it’s essentially designed to make parents feel better. We’re angry, so we punish our kids. When we stop and ask ourselves what purpose punishment actually serves for our children, the answer is clear: it doesn’t serve any purpose at all. The research on spanking is conclusive. It isn’t more effective than other discipline strategies and has a multitude of negative consequences. It reinforces that problems can be solved with violence. It can also reduce the gray matter in our children’s brain which is critical for impulse control. When we spank a child for acting impulsively, we could actually be setting him up to fail in the future.

Likewise, timeouts may make us feel better, but they aren’t actually effective in teaching children how to solve problems. No small child sits in time out and thinks, “My mom is right, I really shouldn’t throw blocks.” They either stew or they repress their emotions so the social isolation can end. Either way,  healthy skills aren’t being learned.

To discipline is to teach. Positive discipline utilizes compassionate boundaries and collaboration in order to teach our children cognitive flexibility, emotional intelligence, and empathy. We keep the focus on how their behaviors impact others since punishment shifts the focus onto how to avoid punishment.

Connection, Connection, Connection

Our kids want to please us. They want to stay connected to us and remain in our good graces. When our kids don’t feel connected to us, their behavior will likely reflect this fact. By punishing them, we only succeed in driving a larger wedge between us and them. By setting limits on unsafe and unkind behavior while expressing unconditional love, we communicate, “There’s nothing you can do to make me not love you. Because I love you, I will hold this limit with kindness.”

Doing Your Own Work

Our kids know where we still have work to do; they are masters at shining the light on our unfinished business. Rather than punish them for exposing our humanity, we can graciously accept that we might not have addressed our anxiety quite as thoroughly as we’d thought, or recognize that our anger does still need some attention. Our kids can make us better people if we’ll let them.

Getting comfortable with our own emotions is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. If we were taught not to express ourselves (or that boys don’t cry, or that pretty girls don’t frown, or any other toxic message), we run the risk of inadvertently passing these unhealthy beliefs on to our children. Dr. Laura Markham says it all when she explains, “Regardless of your child’s unique challenges, if you want to parent well, you have to work on yourself, too.”


Behavior is Communication

It asks us to be curious and to dig deeper. When we skim the surface, we miss understanding our children on a deep level. We also miss opportunities to teach them how to identify, express, and work with their thoughts and emotions. We run the risk of missing out on some of the most profound connections we can have in life.

Emotional Intelligence

Helping our children work through their emotions rather than punishing them for having a basic human function teaches them emotional intelligence, and the data tell us emotional intelligence may be more indicative of success than IQ. If we want to give our children the best opportunity for success in life, we simply can’t neglect their emotional landscapes.


Positive parenting improves resilience. When our children are young, they need us. They need to be close to us, and they need to be allowed to need us. When this happens, they grow to be secure, and they will have the confidence to explore as they grow. Paradoxically, the more children are repeatedly told to be independent, the less autonomous they will actually be.

Critical Thinking

When kids are allowed to express themselves and collaborate to solve problems, they learn how to think independently and critically. In contrast, when kids are told to comply without question, they may continue to comply without question when instructed to do so by peers, by predators, by power-hungry leaders, etc.

Respectful parenting is a way of life. The more you practice it, the more natural it will become. We can’t expect all of our struggles to go away when we adopt a positive approach to parenting, but don’t be surprised if your relationship with your children improves and you find more satisfaction in parenting as a result. 


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