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Nelson Mandela was known for his respect for others and for himself. It is said that during his time in prison, Mandela was respectful of everyone he met irrespective of their backgrounds, and even when the others were his oppressors.
But is respect something that is taught and learned, or are some kids just more respectful than others? Experts say that teaching respect at an early age increases the chances that your child will learn to treat themselves and others with respect.
Why does teaching respect matter?
One of the ways in which the dictionary describes respect is “having due regard for (someone’s feelings, wishes, or rights)”. Respect is about how we treat people, how we acknowledge their worth.
Irrespective of how you define this concept, everyone agrees that teaching respect is important. Everyone wants their kids to be respectful kids who grow up into respectful adults, and everyone want their kids to know that they too are worthy of respect and should not allow others to disrespect them.
That said, little is known about how respect emerges and develops, and even about its real impact on children. In other words, few studies have paid attention to how respect influences child outcomes and to the best strategies to teach kids respect.
One of the few studies that sought to better understand how the different aspects of respect influence children’s behavior observed over 400 kids aged between the ages of five and 15. The researchers found that:
- The more children viewed respect as important, the better was their prosocial behavior.
- The more children viewed issues such as fairness and equality as important, the less likely they were to engage in physical aggression.
As I mentioned earlier, respect is not just about teaching kids to be respectful to others. It is also about showing them that they too deserve respect. Kids who respect themselves are also more likely to respect others.
The problem with teaching respect to kids is that respect can be quite a complex concept for a child to understand.
The good news when it comes to teaching respect is that there are simple strategies to help kids learn about self-respect and respect for others. Here are a few simple strategies that you can try at home.
1) Teaching respect begins with treating your child with respect
The first step in teaching respect is to treat your child with respect. There are many ways in which you can show your child respect:
- Making them know their opinion counts: listening to them, asking them what they think, taking their views into account before you make decisions, allowing them to make decisions.
- Letting them know that they are appreciated: using kind words, showing them that they are loved, hugging them.
- Making them know that they matter by including them in your everyday life.
- Explaining your actions: explaining your rules and limits instead of simply imposing them, explaining why they are being punished, explaining why they are not allowed to do something.
- Being empathetic: understanding the issues underlying your child’s behavior, understanding what behavior is normal depending on their age, accepting that we all make mistakes.
- Respecting their decision: when your child makes a decision, don’t try and change their opinion. When they ask you to stop ticking them, just stop.
2) Teaching respect is not about punishment
So, your daughter says something that is totally disrespectful, for example she calls her grandmother names. Most parents would react in anger, and that is a totally normal reaction. After the anger would come the punishment.
But simply punishing your child will not teach them why certain behavior is inappropriate. It will not help you understand why your child said what she did. It will not help her to really reflect on their behavior.
Teaching respect is about asking questions that help your child reflect on their behavior:
- Why did you say what you said? (sometimes, children are disrespectful because they are unable to process difficult emotions such as anger, because they are mimicking behavior they have seen elsewhere or even at home, or because they are unsure about how to act in a given situation).
- How would you feel if someone said the same thing about you? (given that respect is quite a complex concept for kids to grasp, it is important to help them understand that disrespect is hurtful. Asking your child to think about occasions on which they felt disrespected and how that made them feel is an easy way to help them better understand how their disrespectful behavior affects others).
- What other ways could you express your anger?
- What could you say the next time you feel the same.
Identifying the cause of your child’s disrespectful behavior is important in teaching respect.
Although teaching respect is not about punishment, it is important to set respect guidelines and to ensure that your child is aware of the disrespectful behavior that will not be tolerated.
3) Be a model of respect
When you model kindness, empathy, compassion and respect for other, you teach respect. When you model the opposite, you teach the opposite.
Modeling respect means treating everyone with respect. It means treating your kids with respect. It means apologizing when you need to apologize. Remember that respect is earned, not demanded.
If you are always yelling at your child, you teach them that yelling at others is a normal and valid way to speak to others. You teach them that they are right to yell when they are angry or frustrated. Adopting positive communication approaches is therefore an easy way to teach your child about respectful communication.
Teaching respect is also about teaching respectful words. It is about making it normal for them to use terms such as “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me”.
It is also about providing an alternative word when your child uses a disrespectful one. Remember that children tend to repeat words that they hear in their environment, and they may not be aware that the words they are using may be disrespectful.
4) Teach your child about respect
Children are not born with innate knowledge of the words to use and the word to avoid. Many of the things that they learn, they learn from their environment.
It is therefore important to give your child examples of disrespectful behavior by drawing on examples in their environment.
For instance, if you are watching a movie together in which someone is acting disrespect, talk about it. If you see someone cut the queue, talk about it. If your child interrupts you when you’re talking to someone else, tell them that that is disrespectful behavior and ask them to wait their turn.
Books around empathy and kindness are also an easy way to teach respect. Great examples include:
- Stand in My Shoes: Kids Learning About Empathy
- Charlotte’s Web
- The Invisible Boy
- Kindness is Cooler, Mrs Ruler
- What Does It Mean To Be Kind?
- Kindness: A Treasury of Buddhist Wisdom for Children and Parents
5) Teach your child to expect respect
Teaching your child how to react when around other kids is an easy way to teach respect. Teaching them to share: “You can play with the toy first and then it’s my turn”, “I’ll give you the book when I’ve finished”, “we both want it so we can play with it together” can help them learn to take both their feelings and those of others into account.
Teaching respect is not only about respecting others. It is also about learning self-respect and expecting respect from others. Being “too kind” is not a virtue. Your child needs to learn to consider others’ feelings and their own feelings as well. They need to know that their feelings are just as valid as others’ feelings.
When it comes to teaching respect, the thing to remember is that if we really want to teach our kids to be respectful, we must help them learn to treat others as they would like to be treated.