Growing up in a British-Jamaican household, respect for my elders played an integral part in my upbringing. As kids in the house we always knew our place.
Children were seen and not heard – in practice this meant there would be no slamming of doors or stamping around under my mum’s roof. God forbid you had the gall to think of answering her or another adult back. Literally. “Honour thy mother and they father and thy days will be long” (Exodus 20:12) was our mother’s favourite quote to shout at me and my siblings whenever she thought we were being rude or unruly.
We wouldn’t dream of getting into trouble outdoors either, for fear of what punishment would be waiting for us when we got home. This was the late 1970s and early 80s where smacking a child was legal and still socially acceptable.
But even though our mother was strict, my siblings and I had – and still have – so much love and respect for her. She has always been a no nonsense kind of woman, ever since she came to England as part of the Windrush generation. She was 18 when she arrived alone from Jamaica to start a new chapter in her life. Very soon she was married with children of her own.
As a full-time working mum, employed by the local authority as a senior social worker in the children’s team, I think this shaped her parenting style. She had to deal with not just some of the most vulnerable children in society but some of the rudest – of course, they were often one and the same.
Mum strongly believed that children can and should love and fear their parents at the same time. I vividly remember when, as siblings, we got into any kind of spat, one way to end the argument was always: “Ooh, I’m telling Mummy!” Any mischief we were getting up to would cease because we knew Mum was not the type to discuss a situation before she meted out her punishment.
But strangely enough, I think her parenting had a very strong influence on the way I raised my son – I realised I didn’t need to parent the way she did.
My mum had a large family – there was six of us siblings – and on reflection I think she had to adopt a strict style or it would have been pandemonium. She saw ruling by fear as the way for her to run and raise her family efficiently.
My son, by contrast, is an only child. Not long after I had him, I became a single mother and he became the centre of my world. He didn’t have to fear me because he had me all to himself. All I wanted in return from him was his trust.
I worked hard to build a close relationship between us so he could confide in me about absolutely anything. On the flip side, this meant he got away with a lot, like coming home late from school even though he had a curfew and offering up no explanation as to why he was late. I would pull him up, but he would give me one-word answers – and that would be the end of the conversation.
To be fair to him, he wasn’t such a difficult kid growing up. And by the time I had him, there was much greater awareness of different parenting techniques. The thought of beating him as punishment – or to get a message across – never entered my head. He was often grounded, but he knew there was never going to be any physical punishment and he would go to his room without complaint. He had more than enough gadgets to keep him company in there.
Research has shown that shouting or using harsh words to discipline your children often results in worse behaviour the next time they are exposed to fear. Children disciplined this way are more likely be depressed and more prone to misbehave at school, lie to their parents, steal or get into fights. As an adult you’d react badly to someone talking to you that way, wouldn’t you?
Now I play a significant part in my grandson’s upbringing, teaching him respect is at the forefront of my grandmother’ duties. Forget the fear factor – I wouldn’t dream of belittling my grandson to get results. But he wouldn’t listen to me anyway. He actually laughs when I’m trying to be firm with him.
He’s at that age where he is exploring and touching everything, from radiators to kitchen cupboards. He likes climbing on furniture and tries to stick his fingers in anything with a hole or crevice. So I find myself constantly reprimanding him. But it falls on deaf ears.
My mum, who helped so much when I was raising my son, says she is proud of the way I’m grand-parenting, but thinks I’m too soft with her great grand-son – even if she spoils him herself (she FaceTimes everyday from Jamaica and he bosses her about, too!) Interestingly, it’s when I see him with his dad that he’s best behaved. Even through tears, he will do what he’s told and, despite his young age, there’s a grudging respect between son and father.
Maybe the fact that it’s mutual is key. I think as parents we often forget children are little people too and need all the help they can get to grow into well-adjusted adults. Fear is forced, but respect is earned. Earn your children’s through the authority of your actions so they fear the consequences of misbehaving, rather than fearing you. Be sure to go big on love and positive nurturing and they’ll want to earn your respect in turn.