Children who have respect instilled in them while growing up turn up to be more adaptive conflict-resilient people who find a way from difficult situations much easier. They are also less inclined to bully others in school and more likely to stand up for others. As you can see, respect isn’t something auxiliary, like subtleties of etiquette. It’s an essential value and ability that we must teach our children.
The very basic formula of respect is empathy + recognizing other person’s boundaries. Here I should note that by “empathy” I mean a conscious ability to put oneself in the mind of another individual and imagine what they are thinking or feeling, not just “emotional contagion” that is innate (when a baby hears another baby crying, she starts crying as well).
Therefore, teaching kids respect is basically teaching them conscious empathy and boundaries. Here are some ways to do it.
Play games to teach respect
The most natural way for children to learn is through play. You can play with them while you are waiting in the queue or driving them to school. These games don’t require any equipment.
Come up with several scenarios that demonstrate everyday situations. For example:
- Sarah notices a poppy seed in Gloria’s teeth after they had a poppy-seed cake. She says out loud “Gloria! You have dirt on your tooth!”
- Oliver rides on a school bus and feels that he is about to sneeze, so he takes a tissue from his pocket to cover his mouth.
- Alison sees that her classmate Jason is very anxious about college admission, so she offers him to help with his admissions essay.
- Nick invites Michael to play videogames at his house. Michael brings Josh, Steve, and Jennifer with him without asking Nick.
If your child thinks that the hero of the story has shown others respect, he or she cries out “Thumbs up!” or demonstrates the thumbs-up. If your child believes, that the hero has shown a lack of respect, they should say “Thumbs down!” If more than one child is playing, the first one to call thumbs down must explain what would be the respectful way to act. For example, “Sarah should have told Gloria discreetly in her ear that Gloria should check her teeth or offer her a mirror”.
To make this game more fun, you can invent your own words (Nailed it!/Failed it!) sounds (Ting!/Wah, wah, wah, wahhhh…) or gestures for honoring respect or calling out disrespect. Choose whatever your children feel most enthusiastic about.
You can also use these words/sounds when someone in your family has shown respect (or lack thereof) towards another. This is a goofy enough way to comment on the situation that is potentially tense and problematic.
Observe and Learn From Behaviors
When you drive or walk, encourage your children to observe less considerate behavior around them:
- Cars that park in a way that hinders pedestrians
- People taking photos of strangers
- People cutting in in front of others in a queue
- Vandalized walls, litter
Each spotted instance earns spotter a point. Who earns more points wins. If your children are having trouble to spot those, you may point out some of the cases yourself. Alternatively, if everyone around behaves nicely, you may reverse the situation and spot instances of respect instead.
Note: make sure that children share those remarks discreetly, without being disrespectful themselves (pointing finger or in any way the attracting attention of a person in question). Also, rectify some of the cases if that is possible (for example, pick up litter).
If they could speak…
Another great exercise in empathy and respect is to give voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. For example, your child’s pet.
Smokey looks scared of the vacuum cleaner. If he could speak, what he would say? (“Oh no, not this thing again! It’s so loud it hurts my ears. What if it eats me?”)
You can play out entire dialogues. After this game, your child won’t be tempted to scare the poor thing and make fun of the panic reaction, as children sometimes do, when they are less empathetic.
If your child has a baby sibling, you might want to teach your eldest one to understand the emotions and needs of the infant.
Baby Susan looks happy. How do you think why? (“I think she likes her new mobile. It’s colorful. It gives her something to look at. She must be bored lying on her back and being unable to explore”).
Model the example
The most important thing is, of course, showing respectful behavior in everyday life:
- Show them how you resolve conflicts. Of course, the best way is not to argue in front of your child. However, if that’s unavoidable, you must make sure that the conflict is resolved in a respectful way and compromise is found. It is important to demonstrate how to handle a difficult situation with respect to everyone’s opinion.
- Make sure that your child feels respected. Don’t break their personal boundaries. Knock before entering the room, don’t throw their old things away without asking them, and don’t force them to hug relatives if they don’t want to. Let them finish speaking, even if you believe they are talking nonsense. Too often we teach kids that “respect” is something they only owe others. It’s important to show that they are entitled to respect in return. When a child feels respected it becomes second nature to them.
Adam Wakoski is a web developer and project manager with a particular interest in e-learning tools and gamification techniques. As a responsible favorite uncle to three nephews and a niece, he also understands the importance of off-screen quality time with children and the power of talk.