Teaching Kids Respect–for Themselves and Others

Kids sitting happily in classroom, showing respect to teacher

“Kids today are SO disrespectful,” you’ve probably heard (or even muttered, amongst other statements). 

It’s true that parent-child relationships are evolving. Many kids today behave differently, communicate differently, and have different goals and expectations than a mere generation ago. 

They are growing up in a different world. 

Still, teaching respect is as important now as when Aretha first sang about it.

Some children today are granted more leeway and left ample room to question and challenge our guidance. This can feel and appear disrespectful. 

Alternatively, kids taught to blindly follow authority can lack confidence, problem-solving skills, and have an unhealthy fear of failure. They don’t necessarily learn to trust or respect themselves.

Respect is twofold: we must remain courteous to others while also standing up for ourselves. 

The conundrum is, when does letting our kids speak for themselves border on disrespect? And, at what point do our actions as parents fail to respect our kids? (Learn how to stop all the yelling with our FREE online class.) 

According to author Don Miguel Ruiz, “Respect is one of the greatest expressions of love.” 

If this is the case, it has the power to change the world–we just have to get it right. 

What Is The Difference Between Respectful and Disrespectful Behavior?

Respect is a balance of knowledge, intention, care, and reflection.

Only when we’ve taught and self-modeled respect towards others can we expect our children to know what it looks like, understand its value, and act respectfully themselves. 

When kids do know what’s expected and are blatantly unkind, it can be considered disrespect. They know how they should act, but they don’t care. Or, they have ulterior motives. 

First, consider whether your home environment allows your kids to make some decisions and voice their opinions. If so, a bit of questioning and complaining isn’t necessarily disrespectful.

Also, remember that kids are always gaining more independence; and sometimes, that means challenging their parents. 

Next, consider your child’s age when determining respect versus disrespect. A three-year-old isn’t going to immediately understand that it isn’t nice to point out a stranger as “fat” or an old lady as “more wrinkly than Grandma.” But with time and calm instruction on what (or not) to say, kids will learn.

Caveat: Children with neurological differences may have a medical reason for adverse actions. If you are concerned with your child’s behavior, please consult a counselor or physician. 

Disrespect quote Amy McCready

Do Respect and Good Manners Go Hand-in-Hand?

Charming phrases like “Yes Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am,” are falling further from children’s vocabulary. Backtalk seems to be bursting out instead. 

Parents can still train kids when and how to use social conventions at age-appropriate times for each individual child. Saying “please,” “thank you,” holding doors for people, complimenting a meal, and offering to pay gas money, are all types of respect and kindness. 

Kids want to do the right thing. And, they feel more confident in a variety of social situations when they know how to act. 

“Yes Sir” does indeed sound nice. But a child who doesn’t use formalities–even when trained–isn’t necessarily less respectful. 

Cordial behavior isn’t everything. And, it doesn’t mean much if it’s just surface-level. Caring about others is what makes a difference.

Some shy children rarely say “hi,” for instance, and it may seem rude. Before assuming that shyness has ill intent, we can offer strategies to make them more comfortable with greetings.  

Then, we can focus on how our young one helped fold laundry that day, or how our teenager listened to a friend in need. This proves that beyond greetings, there are alternative ways to show kindness. 

Respect and manners are also nuanced. Showing Grandma respect might look different from showing friends or even teachers respect. Kids greatly benefit from learning these societal/generational differences! 

Entitlement and Disrespect

Teaching respect means fighting against entitlement. Because entitlement doesn’t show respect for people’s time, money, or efforts. 

Along with an evolving social structure where kids have more input, there has also been a shift towards giving our kids more of everything else, too. More material possessions, more technology…and greater freedoms with fewer responsibilities. 

It’s understandable that we want our kids to have generous, carefree childhoods. We want to make life easier and more enjoyable for them. 

But in doing so–even when the intention is noble–parents are losing sight of the big picture. If we don’t expect kids to contribute in meaningful ways, we aren’t teaching respect (or receiving it)! 

The war against entitlement happens a little every day, like when we encourage our kids to do their Family Contributions (a helpful euphemism for chores!). Or, when we remind them to give, not just expect, appreciation for family, friends, and teachers. 

And lastly, we must stop rewarding our children for basic, expected tasks. When we offer candy for folding the laundry or a dollar for every completed homework assignment, we aren’t teaching them the intrinsic value of helping others–or themselves. 

Though we’re enticing them to get things done, we’re actually robbing them of essential lessons in generosity and self-respect.

Building a Respectful Environment At Home

If we build an environment where our children feel valued and their opinions are heard, we are already building the foundation of respect. 

We can solidify this intention by showing that respect in everyday situations. 

This starts by:

Using Discipline, Not Punishment

The distinction between punishment and discipline is often lost, but it is critical. 

Punishment intentionally blames, hurts, and embarrasses kids when they misbehave or make a poor choice. It’s meant to teach them not to repeat that action, but instead, it makes them feel worse about themselves–it teaches only fear

That’s not what respect is about! 

Discipline differs greatly from punishment, because it offers a positive, proactive approach; it essentially allows kids to feel the effects of their choices without being chastised for them! It also teaches right versus wrong more effectively, because the lesson isn’t lost in reproach and resentment. 

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Involving Children in Decisions

Imagine parenthood as a system of government. A generation or more ago, kids were raised in a more autocratic-type system. Parents made the rules, and kids followed them–or else!

Fast-forward to the present day, and you might compare contemporary parenthood to a democracy of sorts. Kids get to have an opinion! They may not hold executive office, but they are certainly representatives in congress.

Kids’ thoughts, feelings, and grievances have a right to be aired. They matter

Society has been slowly peeling away from more autocratic parenting towards this system of democracy. But, it doesn’t mean kids can’t learn or focus on respect! 

In fact, like respectful discipline, kids learn better by being a part of decisions. It even increases their ability to work with, and mitigate, the wishes of others!

There are two simple Positive Parenting Solutions® tools you can employ to give kids the freedom of voice and choice–both of which personify respect!

Creating a Decision-Rich Environment

According to renowned psychologist Alfred Adler, all humans–including children!–long for power, belonging, and significance. It drives their every move.

So, kids aren’t being rude or less respectful for wanting attention, validation, a voice, a chance to air grievances, and a little more control.

When children are granted age-appropriate choices in their lives, these desires are quickly met: they’re given the power to make each choice, they know their opinions matter, and they immediately feel valued. 

Allowing kids to make decisions, and not dictating everything they do, awards them this basic respect.

A Decision-Rich Environment empowers a four-year-old to choose between two or three outfits to wear each day. Or, it encourages a teenager to choose Friday’s dinner menu each week.

Age and proven responsibility can allow additional, increasingly important choices–and this permits kids to improve their decision-making skills and shape their own lives! 

Using the Ask, Don’t Tell Tool

Another positive discipline tool is Ask, Don’t Tell. Designed by counselor/psychologist Lynn Lott, it represents freedom to a “T.” 

No one likes being bossed around in the first place. And believe it or not, kids might be more willing to help us, or do what we’re requesting, when we ask nicely!

This might sound like, “Any chance you’d be able to give me a hand getting the living room ready for our friends to come over?” instead of, “You need to get your things out of the living room.”

Kids need our guidance and direction, and sometimes, that takes some spurring. But asking respectfully not only sets a good example of how to treat someone, it also eliminates backtalk and power struggles

The key is, you DO have to ask–and you have to do this only when you are able to accept a “no” for an answer. But by doing so, you’re actually more likely to get a cheerful, “Sure!” in the long run. 

Because respect isn’t taking power from our kids. It’s giving it to them. 

Positive Parenting Solutions® Members: For more strategies to gain cooperation from your kids, revisit Steps 3 and 4 of the 7-Step Parenting Success System® course

Amy McCready quote about respect

Taking Time for Training

Kids deserve the chance to learn our expectations. 

In other words, our kids are not mind-readers!

We can’t say they’re acting disrespectfully if they haven’t been taught what respect looks like! 

Kids need training with everything from unloading the dishwasher for the first time to hanging up their clothes. 

When this is the case for everyday actions, they definitely require time to observe and practice the art of respect

In a scenario where a young kiddo unwittingly does something rude, like grab and lick his brother’s ice cream, it’s the perfect opportunity to do some training and role play how to ask for something you want in lieu of grabbing someone else’s food (or toys, or anything!). 

But you can’t expect kids to know what is rude before they’ve encountered that scenario. They also deserve a decent explanation as to why it’s disrespectful and sufficient training on an alternative behavior.

Modeling Respect Towards Others

No matter how respectfully we speak to our kids, we also have to prove with every action that we appreciate other people. Friends, strangers, everyone

Leading by example can never be overestimated. Otherwise, we’re hypocrites! 

If we tell our kids it’s rude to say mean words to acquaintances, they’ll be confused when they watch us berate the slow cashier or waitress. 

And, they’ll take great notice when we’re disrespectful to a spouse. 

Modeling respect also means monitoring what our kids are exposed to. Tweens and teens, for instance, can be naturally indignant, but watching unkind and disrespectful actions on social media often makes things worse.

While we can’t control everything our kids witness, we can minimize bad examples (establish those parental tech controls and set limits!) until they can successfully demonstrate the difference between respect and a lack of it. 

Teaching Empathy

If respect is about loving one another, then empathy is an integral piece of the puzzle. Kids can’t learn respect without it! 

Empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s position. And kids have an amazing capacity to sympathize with others! They just have to be reminded that not everything is about them. 

Your six-year-old may be aggravated when his older sister refuses to share her toys. But instead of letting him dwell on how it makes him feel slighted, you can say, “How do you think your sister feels when you constantly grab her toys?”

Empathy can also be taught through small acts of volunteering or by giving back in some way: planting trees, writing thank you cards, or donating $2.00 of an allowance to someone in need. 

Communicating with One Another

Communication is taught

It starts with our own willingness to open up with our kids. Kids learn that a wide range of feelings, even from adults, is normal. They learn to listen and sympathize. And, they understand that expressing emotions is not only therapeutic, but essential for problem-solving. 

Successful communication works both ways. During a typical whirlwind week, it’s easy to ignore a four-year-old asking why the grass is green…for the fiftieth time. Or, when we’re absorbed in work and texts on our phones, it’s easy to zone out and forget to listen. 

Showing our kids respect by listening to them–even when we have to hear who their friend’s brother’s cousin has a crush on!–proves that respect. 

Holding Routine Family Meetings

Family Meetings are like a power session in communication. Everyone in the family attends and takes turns talking about the upcoming week’s schedule and expectations. Kids and adults take turns as mediators and meeting leaders. 

These meetings go far beyond logistics. They give each and every family member a chance to talk about problems, concerns, and possible solutions. Family members take turns listening to one another speak–even the littlest ones have a say!–and work together to problem-solve. 

Routine family meetings epitomize cooperation. And cooperation can’t occur without granting others our time and attention (a.k.a. respect). 

Kids Must Learn to Respect Themselves, Too!

When kids believe in their abilities, they have the tools to respect (LOVE) themselves. 

Kids need to know they have an opinion, a voice, and power. They need to understand their significance. And, they must be aware they belong in this world. 

Kids that know how to respect themselves will naturally understand how they should be treated. But, they’ll also understand that selflessness can benefit others. 

Self-respecting kids also have a greater understanding of emotional and physical boundaries. They’re more apt to acknowledge the signs and symptoms of bullying and be aware when someone, or something, crosses a line.

Thankfully, modeling respectful practices, training kids to show respect in a variety of situations, and battling entitlement are all strategies to teach self-respect and help kids thrive. 

Final Thoughts

Respect is a way of life. It’s a deep, meaningful consideration of others and a feeling of belonging and significance–not only for one’s self, but for the people around us. 

This isn’t something that’s taught overnight! It’s a lifelong process. Don’t worry if your kids are still in the thick of it. You now know what you can focus on.  

But, imagine. If all children grow into adults who respect themselves and one another, the world will be a vastly better place.

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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions® and the best-selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on The Doctors, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.