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Teaching Children Respect

Teaching Children Respect

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, they must be taught.

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. If you know that large crowds upset your child, don’t plan a massive birthday party! If loud noises make your child anxious, maybe wait a few years before taking them to a concert. Set your child up for success by avoiding situations that are likely to provoke disrespectful behaviors.

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!

Practice and Patience

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 situations 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!

Model Respect

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! Modelling is a teaching technique in which you show your child what you’d like them 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 Counselling shared, “‘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 their ground, even if they really do feel sorry for their 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, or yell, 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 modelling respect. Losing your cool and screaming will show your child that angry outbursts are ok. Try to address unwanted behaviors calmly and privately, reset expectations, and remind your child of the consequences of their 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 their 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,” continued Dixon.

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 them for their thoughtfulness in holding the door. If they forget a needed “thank you,” model it for them right away. Feedback is most effective when given immediately. Positive feedback will encourage 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.

Fit It When It Isn’t Broken

This was a hard concept for my husband to embrace. Our daughter had an absolute 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, because it will happen again!

Teaching our children to be respectful won’t happen in a day, or even a week! Luckily for us, we will be given many, many opportunities!

Published in Baton Rouge Parents Magazine


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