How to Raise Respectful Kids

Respect means honoring other people and treating them with care and courtesy. While respect includes good manners, the core of the behavior goes deeper than politeness. It stems from the belief that other people have as much worth and dignity as you, and that harming others or their property is inherently wrong. Kids usually learn to be respectful of rules at home and at school, to not make fun of friends, and to use polite speech. Respectful behavior seems to have fallen out of favor in public discourse and mass media, and kids pick that up. But they need to learn that even strong feelings can be expressed in a respectful way.

Be Supportive

Even young children deserve respect. Show your kids that you care about their feelings--by sympathizing with their needs, comforting their fears, and explaining what you're doing when it concerns them. Respecting your child means not putting him or her down or making negative statements that could become self-fulfilling prophecies. Children who grow up in supportive families are more likely to develop healthy self-respect--which encourages them to believe in their abilities and make good choices for themselves.

Respect Is a Two-Way Street

Kids aren’t born respectful. They learn respect from their parents and other important grownups in their lives--through imitation and direct teaching. Young children naturally think the outside world, including parents, exists to meet their needs. As they develop language and cognitive skills, you can teach them that hitting and grabbing are wrong, that screaming and interrupting Mom and Dad are not permitted. They learn this little by litte, as parents react with firmness but not anger. Just say, "No screaming. Please use a quiet voice,"  and separate them from the action for a few minutes if they don't comply. Also stress kindness and empathy. From these early lessons, respect for other people will grow.

Set Rules and Boundaries for Respect

Rules are essential reminders for kids to curb their impulses. Family rules could include no name-calling or bad language, listening to what others have to say, not using a sibling’s belongings without asking, and finding a respectful way to tell someone they’re annoying you. Set reasonable boundaries, and let children know what is expected of them. Be sure to give consistent consequences when rules are broken--or they won’t be meaningful. Similarly, compliment your child when she  or he follows a rule that you've set.

Practice Good Manners

Courtesy is the oil that makes everything run more smoothly. Remember the “magic words” please and thank you? You might want to also teach your child “may I,” “excuse me” and “I’m sorry.” These phrases are outward expressions of kindness that help kids function in the world and build relationships. Good table manners are also a form of respect for others who are sharing your meal. Make practicing table manners at home a fun experience rather than an angry or tense one.

Be a Role Model for Respect

Parents are the key role models for most of their children’s behaviors, including respect. Kids learn much more from their parents’ example than from anything else. How moms and dads treat each other helps define how our kids will behave with members of the opposite sex. Adults can also be negative role models, if they speak rudely to a waiter, curse at slow drivers, or treat their own parents disrespectfully. Think about what your kids are learning by watching you.

Mind the Media Messages

Disrespectful behavior seems to be widespread today on TV, in movies, in pop culture, and online. Putdowns, cursing, off-color jokes, and demeaning sexual or ethnic stereotypes are often portrayed as funny. It’s hard to protect kids from these negative examples of how to treat others. But you can heighten their awareness so they don’t absorb them unquestioningly. Watch TV with your child and comment on rude or intolerant characters, saying, "That man doesn’t respect his wife--that wouldn’t be unacceptable behavior in our house." Develop a standard of respect that transcends mixed messages they may be getting from pop culture.


Treat Elders with Respect

In some other cultures, the elderly have an honored role, but here it’s a different story. Rather than being seen as repositories of wisdom, older people are often seen as burdensome, inept, or at least uncool. Bring your child along when you spend time with an elderly relative or neighbor. Suggest things that older people can share with your child--a family recipe, a personal story about living through historical events, or an old photo album. Emphasize that the elderly deserve our respect because they’ve lived longer, worked hard, and have wisdom to impart.

Teach Kids How to Disagree Respectfully

One of the greatest challenges most of us face is how to deal respectfully with people with whom we disagree. This is something even adults have a hard time with. Some basic rules that you could teach your children (and put into practice in your own dealings): Don't judge people before you get to know them. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. Listen attentively before you jump in with your argument. And if you’re treated disrespectfully, tell the person, “I don’t like being talked to that way. Please use a polite tone of voice (or please wait for me to finish speaking) so we can have a discussion.”

Encourage Respect for Nature

Help kids  respect for the natural world by teaching them how to treat wild creatures, plants, and pets. If your child wants to pet a dog or cat, teach him or her to ask the owner whether it’s OK first. Make sure kids take care of their pets, remembering to give them enough food, water, and attention. When you’re out in nature, explain the concept of “leave no trace”--taking home any items they’ve brought in and leaving flowers and plants for others to enjoy. 

Teach Respect for Surroundings

When kids toss their ice cream cups on the street or cover neighbors' houses with toilet paper on Halloween, they haven't learned the connection between respecting people and respecting their property. Start by teaching kids to be careful with their own and family members' belongings. Then extend that by getting involved with kids in neighborhood cleanups, flower-planting, and recycling. If they accidentally harm another's property, have them write a note and offer to help fix the problem.

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