The idea of a respectful child seems a little bit like an oxymoron; most kids are slamming doors instead of opening them for their elders. But part of this disconnect has to do with where children are developmentally – they’re still stuck in person purgatory with compromised communication and language skills. They don’t have the ability to express their emotions, so they scream them instead.
This doesn’t mean your child is sure to grow up into a rebellious teenager before becoming an insufferable adult. There are plenty of ways to teach your children respect but the most important of all is to show them respect.
Imagine, if you will, your child pouring all the rice from the pantry into their hands because they like how the texture feels. While seeing your stove top carbs all over the floor is enough to make you blow your top, take time to consider why your child is doing what they’re doing. It’s not to cause a mess or increase your grocery bill; they’re curious and exploring to sate this curiosity.
Once you understand where they’re coming from, you can better respect their feelings and, in doing this, you teach them the value of respect, ultimately teaching them to respect others too.
While that may be the number one way to raise a respectful child, there are other tricks you can use as well, including:
1. Make it a team effort
Making respect a team effort is a great way to hold people accountable for their actions. The way to do this is simple: Sit down as a family and come up with a set of rules that everyone is expected to follow. When parents follow the same rules as their children, they’re better able to model respectful behavior.
2. Respect your child’s decisions
As mentioned above, respect is a two-way street and if you want your children to respect you, you need to respect them as well. So, start with something on the low end of the spectrum. In other words, give them a say in something that’s not really a big deal, such as the type of shirt they wear to school or what they eat for breakfast. Or find a way to compromise. If your child insists on going outside in the snowstorm, tell them that they can only do it if they wear all of their winter gear.
3. Cool the kisses
Forced affection is something many parents make a mistake doing. It seems benign to tell a child to kiss their aunt or give their grandmother a hug. But anything forced can make children feel uncomfortable and teach them that they don’t have control over their bodies. Thus, rather than requiring uncomfortable affection, consider teaching them to wave or give a high-five or do something else on par with their wishes.
4. Use your words
Because children learn by observation, the way you talk to your kid is the way they'll talk to others. If you criticize them for taking too long to finish their dinner or complete their math homework, they'll learn that they should talk to others like this as well. On the other hand, if you tell them they're doing a good job with all their arithmetic, you will teach them the importance of diligence and, if you get them a towel after they've spilled chocolate milk all over the dining room table, you'll teach them the importance of problem-solving.
5. Include your children in family decision-making
There are some decisions your children don’t need to be involved in (whether to refinance or sell stock, for instance), but there are plenty of decisions where letting them have say, says a lot. When you make decisions about what to eat for dinner or what TV show to watch, consult with your kids and consider their point of view. This teaches them to consider the point of view of others.
6. Play nice in conflict
Conflict happens, especially in families, but the way you resolve this conflict is of the utmost importance. Rather than yelling or ignoring or even name calling, consider a sit-down discussion where your child gets to present their side of the story. Even if you ultimately disagree with them, children need to know that you’re willing to give their opinion a fair shake. This will become even more important when they’re a teenager and dead-set on getting a nose ring or a giant skull tattoo.
7. Make your children’s feelings matter
Validating someone’s feelings is important no matter the age, but children especially need it. When a child is upset, minimizing it does them harm, even if the minimizing has good intentions. It’s not fair to tell a child that something “is no big deal” when, to them, it’s a huge deal. Instead of engaging in any invalidation, acknowledge your child’s disappointment and then help them find a way to feel better. For instance, if they want to drink out of the orange cup but someone else is using it, acknowledge their disappointment and then mention that the two of you can wash it so that it’s ready tomorrow.
8. Don’t get distracted
When your child needs you, make sure you give them your full attention: Make eye contact, put down your smartphone, turn off the TV, and ask questions that show you’re listening. You must teach your child how to listen so that they can return the favor. This comes in especially handy when they’re teenagers and married to their Androids.
9. Practice manners
You don’t need to teach your toddler where the dinner fork goes in a formal place setting or how to properly curtsy when meeting the Queen, but encourage the use of “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Excuse me.” Another part of being good mannered is knowing how to apologize and acknowledging personal responsibility. The way to teach your child these things is, of course, to do them yourself.
10. Get them curious
Children are endlessly as curious as cats and you can use this to your advantage by teaching them how to engage in two-way conversations. Because children are born narcissists, this can be tricky and they must learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them. And that means encouraging them away from only talking about the stuff they enjoy (ahem, Fortnite), and exploring what others enjoy as well. Cultivate this curiosity by asking (and encouraging them) to ask questions. Even something as insignificant as “What’s your favorite color?” invites curiosity about more important things.
11. Talk about others positively
Sure, it’s not always easy to find something nice to say about your ex-husband’s new wife or your jerk of a boss but refrain from negative gossip…at least in front of your children (that’s what friends are for!). Instead, speak about others on a positive note and encourage your child to do the same. If you don’t have anything nice to say, take a cue from Disney’s Thumper and don’t say anything at all. For example, if the kid next door is learning the bagpipes, rather than complaining about the endless screeching, recognize that they’re getting better or compliment their sense of rhythm.
12. Explore other cultures
Children who grow up sheltered from other cultures mistakenly believe that their way of life is the only way of life. One of the best things you can do as a parent is to explore other cultures. Try Japanese food or visit another country. Attend a same-sex marriage or read a book about a different religion. This fosters respect for all the differences that make the world so dynamic.
13. Maintain boundaries
You can be a disciplinarian without being mean or scary. In fact, one of the most effective ways to discipline is by employing kindness as well as firmness. If your child throws a tantrum in the middle of Pizza Hut because he can’t have a soda, consider taking him outside until he calms down. Acknowledge that he’s upset and then tell him that he can go back in when he’s ready. By doing this, rather than punishing him severely or giving in and giving him a soda, he learns that tantrums are just a waste of energy. And he never engages in them again (Just kidding! But he will learn over time).
14. Hold your kid accountable
Even if you do everything in this article, your kid will show disrespect at times. They’re only human and works in progress. When this does happen, don’t overlook or ignore it: Hold them accountable. Tell them that their disrespect hurts you, ask them to try again, and remind them that they’ll always get further by expressing themselves respectfully. For example, if they call you a “butthead” because you made them a ham sandwich instead of PB&J, ask them to start over without the insults. And, if their disrespect causes overreaction on your part, give yourself a break. But then give your child an apology, too.
15. Give credit where credit’s due
Whenever you catch your child showing respect, praise them. Positive regard reinforces this behavior. You don’t need to buy them a new toy or throw a ticker tape parade but acknowledge their polite behavior. Importantly, make sure that you’re specific. If you just give blanket praise, your child won’t know if it’s because they used good manners or if it’s because they just launched the biggest loogie they’d ever seen. For instance, instead of saying, “Good boy” or “Good girl”, say, “Thank you for not interrupting” or “Thank you for saying, ‘Please’.”
Raising a respectful child is easier said than done but it’s not a long shot either. Let your child learn from you and use the above tips to show them that words and actions have power. Everything else will hopefully fall into place.