CHILDREN learn how to treat others largely through examples at home. If their father treats their mother (or vice versa) disrespectfully, they learn disrespect in return.
It is generally accepted that children learn more from what parents do than from what they say, and so when a spouse demands respect and love but spews dishonour and callousness to his or her partner, it is the actions sown rather than the words spoken that will reap fruit, however toxic. So when a toxic relationship between spouses end, how can the kids from the union be retrained to show kindness and respect?
The spouse with direct responsibility for the kids will need to heal and first ensure that they are in a place of wholeness and self-respect. This is based on the same thought behind the emergency mask on an airplane – you simply have to get yourself in a position to help your kids, and that means ensuring you are well first. So cultivating self-respect is crucial. This will involve setting appropriate boundaries in your life. Abusive, disrespectful conduct from the former spouse or others can no longer be tolerated. Cultivating self-respect may also involve writing down your values and accepting your strengths and weaknesses. Surrounding yourself with a loving, respectful, community is also very helpful in order to build a new culture of respectfulness.
Demonstrating respect to your children
Then while you are steadying yourself with new healthy norms, you begin to talk about what respectfulness looks like with your kids – tone of voice, honouring human life and showing value to others because they are made in the image of God, learning to disagree without dishonouring or denigrating others, measuring words against the yardstick of kindness and truth, etc. After you talk about what showing respect looks like – you then model it by showing them respect in how you treat them and how you mediate issues between fussing children. You can only model it if you yourself are in a good place, which is why the parent who was the victim of spousal abuse should begin cultivating self-respect as outlined above. Soliciting help from a trained counsellor is also useful especially if the child/children has developed deep-seated issues.
Introduce consequences and rewards
As you are modelling that behaviour and introducing a new way of being, it is then important to focus on rewards and consequences. Some parents in this situation rely on empathy – meaning appealing to the child's sense of values and feelings. “Why were you so mean to your brother, your words can really diminish his self-esteem,” you may say to a child. However you can't bank on empathy with children. Train their behaviour with a system of consequences and rewards. As the good book says: “Train up a child” and in this case, “Retrain up a child.”
James Lehman in his article When Kids Get Violent: There's No Excuse for Abuse, explains that “a consequence is typically the loss of a privilege until your child completes a task or behaves acceptably for a specified period of time. This isn't punishment, although it may feel like one to your child. A good consequence is tied to the behaviour in such a way that if the behaviour improves, the consequence goes away as a result.”
Lehman adds that effective consequences are consistent and require a child to show improvement in order to earn a privilege. He offers this helpful example of what a parent could say to a child when tackling disrespectful or abusive behaviour: “If you talk abusively to your sister, I'm taking your phone until you don't talk to her abusively for 48 hours straight. And every time you're abusive with her it starts over.”
Lehman of course recommends a menu of both consequences and rewards. Reward your children for good behaviour. Encouragement sweetens labour after all. Furthermore, the reward doesn't necessarily need to be connected to the matter at hand. So, for example, if your child washes the dishes consistently on her assigned nights and does it well, they can get perhaps get an extra hour of TV time or some other unrelated treat.
Affirm and encourage your children
In tandem with modelling respectful behaviour and introducing a system of consequences and rewards, you must of course affirm and encourage your children. Outside of the parameters of behaviour management, take opportunities to tell your children you love them and be specific and abundant with the details about what you adore about them. Love indeed covers a multitude of sins.
Now all of this retraining and loving can be taking place and will eventually reap fruit once practised consistently, but what happens when the children have visitation with the parent who may still be disrespectful in their conduct with the children or in the manner in which they speak about the other parent? Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will explore that scenario soon.
Shelly-Ann Harris is author of God's Woman, president & founder of Family and Faith Magazine and a media, communication, change management professional. Connect with her on Twitter @Harrisshellyann.