When Libby Stephenson’s* ex-husband starting pushing their daughter, Lee, into karate, she knew it was only a matter of time before the 4-year-old started resisting.
“He was determined to have a daughter who was a black belt, and that was that. After a few months, my daughter began to get bored. I’d have been glad for her to switch to soccer or ballet or something else,” the Irving mom shares.
But when Stephenson brought that up with Lee’s dad, he put his foot down. “He was not going to let her be a ‘quitter,’” she recalls. After that, Lee no longer looked forward to karate; she refused to practice at home and cried during class.
Why did Lee resist her dad’s good intentions – the way so many young kids do? Why did Stephenson’s ex-husband act so stubbornly? Maybe it’s because the two were lacking an important relationship key: communication, what the authors of the new parenting book Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids: Seven Keys to Turn Family Conflict into Cooperation believe is crucial to surviving, enjoying and succeeding in parenthood.
Sura Hart, co-author of the book, mother to two grown daughters and a former schoolteacher, stresses that mutual respect and communication are elements missing from many parent-child relationships that aren’t working. To foster these essentials, the book includes enriching problem-solving activities for families to explore together, helping to identify both parents’ and children’s negative tendencies and encourage cooperation. Also, real-life stories throughout the book from actual parents testify to the power of working with your kids – instead of against them.
“Parents need to shift the quality of connection with their kids and meet more of our needs and their needs. This is especially true these days, when life is such a swirl, and parents are longing for that connection with their kids,” explains Hart. In order to attain the sort of connection that leads to cooperation, the author advises parents to first establish their parenting purpose.
“What is my purpose here? Is it managing behavior or creating relationships that can last a lifetime where there’s trust and respect?” Hart asks. Next, parents should recognize that all people are trying to fulfill their own needs, which often dictates their actions. Once each member of a household begins to take into account the other’s needs, relationships are transformed, she stresses.
“Our children, no matter how they’re behaving, are trying in their heart of hearts to meet some need. If we can see through to that need or connect with what that pain is about, they’re going to be much more open,” the author explains.
Dr. Kristy Hagar, a child psychologist with Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, agrees that teaching mutual respect and fostering communication with children is of the utmost importance.
“This is something you can’t just turn on at age 9. It starts very young,” Hagar stresses. “From the start, respect what they want instead of being that authoritative parent. Even a 2-year-old can be offered a choice. That way, you’re giving them an opportunity to decide and feel like they have control over the situation, which is very empowering.”
This is a point Stephenson seems to have already recognized – she let her daughter, now 9, quit karate, a move that seems to have everything to do with communication. As Hart explains, “Parents have assumptions that we should be in charge and know how to do everything. We’re in this family experiencing and learning about each other’s needs. How can we work this together?”
*Name has been changed.