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Teaching Respectphoto source

R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me.


What does it mean to me?

We’ve been having a lot of conversations about “respect” in my house lately, as A reaches an age where I expect a certain degree of compliance from her and Baby J enters that two-year-old testing phase.

The problem is, I’m having trouble defining the behavior I expect from the kids, and that’s a recipe for disappointment. How does one define “respect” for young children?

Right now, it’s sounding like a whole lot of DON’Ts:

Don’t talk back to me.

Don’t raise your voice to me.

Don’t ignore me when I ask you to do something.

But the girls are still so young, and sometimes they don’t even realize they’re being disrespectful. Just earlier this week, we were invited to a friend’s house. Our host kept asking the girls to stay in the playroom, and the girls kept finding their way back to the bedrooms. One of the times our host went to retrieve them, I actually heard my child providing an argument for why it wasn’t really a problem for the big kids to stay back in her friend’s bedroom.

Hold up. Was my kid talking back to another adult, not just dear old mom??

But really, I was the one who had egg on her face. Had I ever explicitly told A not to argue with an adult directing her out of a room in their home? No. Had I ever told her not to argue with an adult in general? No. Had I ever taught her how to respectfully disagree with an adult or when that would be appropriate? You guessed it: No, I hadn’t.

This all got me thinking about respect, because it’s actually something that’s really important to me. I don’t want to have sassy, bratty kids who don’t respect their elders, their peers, or themselves. But defining respect is proving surprisingly difficult.

I started by trying to explain the concept of backtalk: that when an adult is speaking to you—asking you to do something—it’s not polite to argue.

Of course, it’s not quite so black and white, and I actually started worrying that this line of thinking might make a child more susceptible to abuse from an adult she thought she wasn’t supposed to argue with.

Plus, the issue of respect is further complicated by its various forms. What does it look like to respect your parents vs. your friends, adults vs. peers? I remember visiting with family in Greece as a child and taking a seat at a table that had me with my back to my grandfather. My father gently redirected me to another seat and quietly “reminded” me that positioning myself this way was impolite, disrespectful.

The thing was, I can recall very distinctly feeling as though I’d been tricked. I’d never heard that rule before; it had never been mentioned in the context of my positioning in relation to other relatives. But I realized, then and there, that there were special rules about respect when it came certain individuals, and that respect might be defined differently in other parts of the world.

Even now, bookstore shelves are stocked with etiquette books for adults, with thousands of rules on respectful behavior. If so many adults can’t master these social graces, where do we even start with our kids? What’s your strategy?

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2 thoughts on “Teaching “Respect”

  1. This is really tricky! As a mother, grandmother, and long-time upper elementary school teacher I have long pondered this issue myself. I have discovered two things: I have a pretty high tolerance for outspoken children and I don’t necessarily consider children who are outspoken “disrespectful”. I actually enjoy and am amused by children who are bold and self-confident enough to speak their minds with anyone, their peers and adults alike. I believe we, as adults, can guide outspoken children toward the behavior we expect of them by honestly and patiently. We also have to model respectful discourse in our own interactions.

    I also feel strongly that children deserve the same level of respect regarding their thought, ideas, and opinions as adults do (within reason, of course). I have found this approach works very well and, with adult guidance, children discover appropriate ways to express themselves with adults given the circumstance.I am concerned when adults feel children should never speak back to adults. I think this can inhibit children from speaking up about abusive situations and devalue their valid concerns.

    In the given circumstance with your 4-year-old, you could let her know that he friend’s mommy is in charge at her house just like you are in charge at your house, Then, instead of apologizing, ask her to tell the other mommy she understands she’ll have to follow their rules at their house when she visits. Children respond so much better to this kind of a positive approach over shaming and intimidation. Clearly, I don’t believe in a “my way of the highway” approach and I find children respond to my requests much more favorably because they sense their voices are heard and respected!

    Good luck with that precocious child of yours :)

    1. What an interesting response! I’m starting to wonder if my tolerance for my children appearing “outspoken” has anything to do with my new environment, namely that my family is now living in the South, where there seems to be a different attitude toward children than where I grew up in the New England. Most adults down here seem to bristle at children who “talk back” rather than acting amused by their precociousness. I guess I’m also feeling this new social pressure about how kids should behave.

      You’ve given me a lot to think about. Thank you!

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