Talking to your child about healthy relationships can have a huge impact on how they approach dating relationships later on. But your child will also take cues from you and the relationships you model in day-to-day life. Recognizing that your behavior needs to support what you teach your child about respect is a huge step in raising children who know how to have healthy relationships.
- Evaluate the health of your own marriage, partnership, or dating relationships. This may be difficult, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to model healthy relationships to your kids. Talk to your spouse or partner about how you can both be working on this. Think about what kinds of messages you want to send to your kids about relationships, for example, that partnerships should be mutually respectful and equal. You and your partner may want to evaluate how you share responsibilities, decisions and resources in your relationship and how you demonstrate this balance to your family.
- Practice democratic parenting. Letting your children make decisions where it’s appropriate shows them that their opinions matter. This doesn’t mean leaving everything up to your child, but it does mean giving your child options in the things that they can decide and increasing their decision-making privileges as they get older. A toddler can decide between a red shirt and a blue shirt for him or herself, but a school-aged child can pick out extracurricular activities that are meaningful to them.
This might sound like a small step, but an important right that everyone has in a relationship is the right to make decisions for themselves and the right to have their opinions heard with respect. Showing your child that you respect their opinions and independence, even in these small ways, is an important part of their healthy relationship development.
- Practice discipline, not punishment. When your child misbehaves, think about what your goal is in disciplining them. Are you trying to control their behavior, or are you trying to influence your child to make better decisions for themselves in the future?
For example, “I’m taking your truck away because you threw it at your sister,” is punishment. It’s controlling a child’s behavior without giving a reason for why good behavior is a better option. However, “You threw your truck at your sister and that hurt her, so we’re going to put it away until you can play with it safely,” is the same disciplinary action, but in this case, you’re explaining the consequences of hurtful behavior. This kind of response to discipline shows that your goal is not to have control over your child’s behavior, but instead encourage them to make decisions that are safe and healthy for everyone.
- Demonstrate healthy conflict resolution with your children. As much as is possible, do your best to not fight with your spouse or partner in front of your kids. But if it happens, take time later to explain to your kids how you ended up working through the conflict.
- Demonstrate respect with everyone. A crucial part of building healthy communities is showing respect for everyone, and part of that requires removing discrimination from our attitudes and language. Your kids are watching you, and inconsistencies in behavior—like respecting some people and not others—are obvious to them. Decide that using slang or hurtful words to describe people of different races, religions, or sexual orientations will not be used in your household, even as a joke. You and your partner can practice holding each other accountable for using respectful language at all times.