As a veteran teacher, I’ve been asked many questions about how to teach children over the years, and only once have I been a bit stumped. The mother asked me, “How do you teach respect?” After a moment’s thought, my response was, “Every single day.”
Respectful behaviors are affected by so many variables, such as culture, age, and background. Children are not born with an inherent knowledge of how to be respectful in different situations, so they must be taught the right ways to interact with others.
Set Clear, Reasonable Expectations
No one likes playing a game when the rules are constantly changing. As parents, we must set our expectations for respectful behavior and enforce the expectations consistently and persistently. We must set clear expectations for speaking with adults versus peers, using manners, swearing, attitude, yelling, talking-back, and using words such as “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” In two-parent households, both caregivers must be on the same page in regards to the expectations for respectful behavior.
You know your child better than anyone, so set your expectations accordingly. Set your child up for success by avoiding situations that are likely to provoke disrespectful behaviors. If you know that large crowds upset your child, don’t plan a massive birthday party. If loud noises make your child anxious, wait a few years before taking him to a concert.
Remind your children of their expectations before they have the chance to fail. Before I take my girls out to dinner, I always ask them the expectations before we get out of the car. I used to carry this load, but the girls have taken this responsibility on themselves. Allowing them to take ownership of their expectations shows that I believe in and trust them, and they are more willing to follow their own rules.
The old adage “Practice makes perfect” cannot be applied to teaching respect. Practice rarely makes perfect, and teaching respect is no exception. Children are constantly encountering new experiences and will need guidance to navigate them with proper respect. Becoming irritated, even when you’ve reminded them to close the door gently or say “please” one million times, is counter-productive to the lesson. Think of it as an opportunity to model respect in the form of patience.
While we are debunking ancient adages, let’s talk about, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Simply telling children what to do will not work when teaching respect, or much else for that matter. Modeling is a teaching technique in which you show your child what you’d like him to do. Your children need to hear you using kind words, such as “please” and “thank you.” Child therapist Tara Dixon at Heal Your Life Counseling shares, “‘I’m sorry’ is a phrase that children need to hear adults using in order to internalize the importance of the sentiment. Often, children associate having to say that they are sorry with feelings of guilt and shame. This can lead a child to want to stand his ground, even if he really does feel sorry for his actions. Hearing their trusted adults apologize can be very impactful for children.”
Children listen to much more than we sometimes give them credit for, and they are listening to us when we complain about being cut off in traffic, the line at the grocery store taking too long, and the relative who drives us nuts. Choose your words carefully, as they will become the words that your children use.
Remember that even when you are correcting your child’s behavior, you are modeling respect. Losing your cool and screaming will show your child that angry outbursts are okay. Try to address unwanted behaviors calmly and privately, reset expectations, and remind your child of the consequences of his actions.
For some children, empathy comes very easily. Other children need to be taught how to show empathy to others. Teaching empathy means teaching your child how his actions affect others. Saying “excuse me” after bumping into a friend on the playground, or “thank you” after being handed an item are first steps for teaching empathy. “Children with empathy skills will naturally be more respectful than others because they have a clear understanding of the effects of their actions on the people around them,” adds Dixon. Jill Rigby Garner, Founder of Manners of the Heart, agrees, “Choosing to put the needs of others ahead of your wants grows the strength of character, character that chooses respect.”
Address Faux Pas, Immediately and Directly
Feedback on manners should be immediate and specific. If your child holds the door open for the next person, thank him for his thoughtfulness in holding the door. If he forgets a needed “thank you,” model it for him right away. Positive feedback encourages more positive actions, while corrections will remind children of the expectations of respect. Deciding to let disrespectful actions slide will only hurt your child in the long run. It is easier to mold and change behavior with a young child rather than later when the child has been practicing disrespectful actions for years.
Fix It When It Isn’t Broken
Once our daughter had a tantrum about our plans changing. She was rude and disrespectful. Although we did give immediate feedback and consequences, that was not the time for reteaching expectations. Children will not respond favorably to a lesson about anything when they are in the throes of a meltdown or angry over a perceived wrong. Instead, wait for your child to calm down, then readdress the disrespectful behavior when your child can communicate calmly. Talk about what happened leading up to the event and how things could be changed to go more smoothly if it happens again.
Give Opportunities to Serve
“Look for ways they can help others. Nurturing a servant heart in your children encourages respect from the inside out,” says Rigby Garner. Encourage them to volunteer at church, in a soup kitchen, or with their schools.
Teaching our children to be respectful won’t happen in a day, or even a week, but we will be given many opportunities. ■