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How Trusted Adults Navigate Dignity

By Cultures Of Dignity | August 2, 2022

As a trusted adult in your community, you probably already recognize the importance of treating the young people in your life with dignity, and to model how to do so for everyone around you. But take it from young people, that even the most well intentioned adults can sometimes say things that may undermine the message of dignity. Here are some common mistakes you might be making.

For Parents:

Hug it out!

This is a tactic some parents use to help children reconcile with their peers after a disagreement. Cultures of Dignity has talked a lot about how sharing information or photos of your children online can undermine the lessons you may be trying to teach about consent, and this is pretty similar. Part of teaching your children about consent and healthy boundaries also means allowing them to decide what forms of physical touch they are okay with and when. So just like you might not want to force your child to hug other adults when they don’t want to, don’t force them to hug other children.

You have to eat everything on your plate.

We have learned a lot in the past few decades about how important it is for children to have a healthy relationship with food in order to prevent problems later in life. According to the Mayo Clinic, controlling children’s eating habits ultimately teaches them to ignore the needs of their bodies. So although it may be frustrating to get your child to eat well, know that this kind of messaging does not serve them in the long run.

Well your sibling does XYZ…

This may not even be meant as a comparison, you could be simply trying to offer a helpful solution based on what you’ve seen other young people do. But unfortunately this can be interpreted very easily as an adult trying to compare two young people who may be very different. When this kind of thing is repeated, a child may come to believe that the adult who says it does not respect their individuality, does not appreciate the child’s unique experiences, or would like the child more if they were someone different.

I don’t care about everyone else, I am talking about you.

Like it or not, children and young adults are intensely affected by their relationships with their peers. It is understandable that feeling left out is seriously painful, and that young people may make mistakes out of a desire to be accepted. Crucial social skills develop during these times, and it’s very important for young people to learn them because it only gets more difficult as they grow. So to dismiss them as “just wanting to be like everyone else”, completely discounts the young person’s lived experience, when talking about the feelings and reasons behind those experiences and choices is infinitely more productive.

For Teachers:

Why did you do that?/ What do you think you’re doing?

This circles back to what we at Cultures of Dignity call “curious vs. non-curious questions”. Curious questions demonstrate that their asker wants further understanding, whereas non-curious questions seek to shut the other person down. In this case, tone and context (like the young person not believing the adult will listen) usually make these seem like non-curious questions that are not intended to treat the other with dignity.

Is that how you want me to think of you?

A teacher or adult may be using this to demonstrate that they see more potential in the young person this is being said to. But to young people, this may seem like the adult in question has already made up their mind that the young person is “bad”, so trying to be seen differently in this adult’s eyes is futile. This just injects resentment and mismatched expectations into the relationship, which does a disservice to both the young person and the adult.

You should be grateful for XYZ.

This may seem like a helpful way to redirect an upset child’s focus, but like the statement above, it just comes across as dismissive. Rather than redirecting, it encourages children not to come to you with their problems, since this gives them the impression that those problems aren’t important.

You need to show so and so respect.

This is why our definitions of dignity and respect are so important! Dignity is inherent, while respect has to be earned and can be taken away. If someone has done something that has made them lose this young person’s respect, this kind of statement can feel very unjust and upsetting. Reminding someone to treat others with dignity is important, but respect might not be the right word to use.

For everyone:

Use your words.

What words? This is a pretty vague statement, so it’s not typically helpful. Furthermore, unless the child is likely very young, they’ve probably already tried to use words that didn’t work. Hence the reason a trusted adult becomes necessary.

Life isn’t fair.

This is something that adults say a lot, sometimes it’s to be comforting to a young person, sometimes it’s to dismiss them. You are likely not the first person to say this. If you have to say that life is unfair, it’s probably because the situation is unfair, which means the young person has a right to feel what they’re feeling. Focusing on managing those feelings is more helpful than the sayings like this.

Why didn’t you tell me sooner?

It’s always important to appreciate when young people come to you for advice. It means they trust you! But focusing on what they should have said or when, undermines that trust. And if this statement gets repeated, the young person may feel like there’s never a right time, so they just shouldn’t come to you at all, which is the opposite of what a trusted adult wants.

I told you so/I knew that would happen.

Sometimes young people need to make their own mistakes in order to learn and grow. Sometimes that means they act against the advice of the adults in their lives. But they know when a situation like that occurs, so saying something like this makes them feel like you’re holding their mistake over their head. How many times have you avoided talking to someone because you knew they would say this to you? Young people feel pretty similarly.

After reading through these suggestions, your next question may be “Well what can I say?” or “How do I communicate that I want to treat my child with dignity?”. Try some of these phrases:

Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me.

If you don’t know what to say, this allows you to take a moment to breathe and think for a second about what a followup response might look like. At the same time, it validates the young person’s decision to talk to you, which will help further the conversation.

Do you want advice, or do you just want to vent?

This is always a great place to start a conversation with a young person, since you can use it to establish your goals and what you both need. It also reinforces that it is okay to vent sometimes, especially to a trusted adult, rather than to a friend where it could come across as being angry or mean.

When you are ready for solutions, I’m here, and we can figure it out together.

Approaching potential conflicts with young people by assuming you’re on the same side can diffuse a lot of the tension a young person may feel when coming to an adult. It communicates that you are there for support, rather than as an obstacle. It makes the young person more likely to come to you in the future because this phrase demonstrates that adults don’t have all the answers right away, but asking for help lets you brainstorm together.

Do you have ideas about what you’d like to do next?

This is a good phrase because it conveys that the adult is being supportive of a young person’s ideas, or helping them come up with new ones. It eliminates the appearance of judgment that can often cause conflict between young people and the adults in their lives, which allows you to focus on the problem, rather than your relationship with the young person.

It’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes (adults and young people included!), and sometimes our actions might not line up with our intentions. Dignity acts as a framework to move forward. As long as everyone in the conversation works to treat each other with dignity, you will be able to fix problems and keep going, even when someone makes a small mistake. After all, if you each have the same base, there’s nowhere to go but up.

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