Real Conversations: How to teach kids to be respectful

From a young age, teaching your children about concepts like responsibility and respect can help them develop into more emotionally balanced and kinder human beings. It’s not always an easy task – but with the right strategies and a model of consistency, you can foster in your kids a respectful spirit as they navigate the world around them.

To help get you started on teaching your children about being more respectful, here are seven tips with advice from a psychologist.

Step 1: Lead by example

One of the best ways to approach respect around children, especially those at a very young age, is to lead by example. Or, as Tessa Vegelin, Psychologist and EMDR Therapist at Sunny Psychology, puts it: monkey see, monkey do.

“Be the example of respect to people of all ages and backgrounds around you,” she says. “Parents can ask themselves, ‘Do I myself say thank you and please? Do I look people in the eye when I speak to them? Do I let them finish talking, instead of talking over them?”

This behaviour should extend to everyone around you – your partner, your neighbour, the cashier at the supermarket, the person opening a door when you enter a building – and it can result in greater well-being all-round.

“Children are sponges and they will pick up on parents wanting to teach them a lesson, so if the parent isn’t actually living that lesson, they will roll their eyes and do as you do – not as you say.”

Step 2: Teach your kids the meaning and value of responsibility

Understanding what it actually means to be respectful involves another element of emotional intelligence: being responsible. And much like your child will mimic your ability to show respect to others, they will also learn from how you embrace responsibility.

“Teach them the joy of being part of something bigger,” Vegelin says. “That could mean telling them, ‘Together we clean the table, so that we can play Uno’ or ‘Let’s help that person because when they feel better, we will feel better.’ You cannot start early enough with responsibility.”

Not sure where to begin? Start small. Let them cut the cucumber, let them pack the dishwasher, let them burp their siblings. Lead by example, provide them with the tools to carry out the action, and just enjoy the time together.

“Yes, it will take longer to do those things, but you will reap the fruits in a few years because the more they are included, the more it becomes their norm and they will start to notice the little things you do. Them cleaning up after themselves is no longer about pleasing you, but because it makes sense.”

Step 3: Identify common causes of children being disrespectful

Only by identifying why someone is being disrespectful can children understand how they should not react themselves. Outlining these scenarios – such as shouting, talking back, not listening or being rude to others – means you can address the issue upfront and overcome those challenges as a family.

“There are a multitude of reasons why children can be disrespectful, however I believe the main one stems from them seeing people disrespecting each other and being disrespected themselves,” Vegelin says. “It is a form of disconnection and sets a precedent for this type of behaviour. We all want to be included, because inclusion in a group like friends, family and school means safety. But if there is the constant risk of disrespect, inclusion becomes conditional and that means there is no safety, so the incentive to be respectful decreases.”

The most successful groups, Vegelin adds, are those who have reciprocal respect and care for each other. People want to be a part of those groups, so they will be considerate – not out of fear of retribution, but out of the joy of being together.

Step 4: Encourage ways of communicating that emphasise respect

There are many different pieces of the puzzle when it comes to being respectful. As their parent, it’s up to you to teach them about all the different ways they can communicate properly. For example, just because they are saying the right things, that doesn’t mean they are showing it. Think about the times you’ve apologised verbally but your body language betrayed you.

Encourage positive ways of communicating, such as waiting their turn to speak and not interrupting, as well as using manners and asking for things politely. Also teach them about the value of active listening – that is, truly listening to what the other person is saying, rather than just waiting for their turn to say something.

Step 5: Discuss examples of respectful actions – and praise their positive behaviour

Disrespectful actions can extend to a variety of situations. It’s not just about how you interact with your friends and family – disrespect can also appear in how animals are treated, or in situations when you aren’t feeling well, such as after a long day.

“If your partner, or the tuckshop lady, or the Telstra guy hasn’t done as promised, then it can be easy to say, ‘Well, they haven’t done this right, it’s always the same thing, they can be a real pain sometimes.’ When your child hears this, they will learn that respect doesn’t have to be given at all times,” Vegelin says.

Instead, be conscious of your own drawbacks when it comes to being respectful even in frustrating situations, and look for the moments when your child is being understanding and respectful – especially in environments where others may not necessarily give respect themselves. Praising that behaviour is a way to instill in your child a sense of emotional strength, and they will reflect on those positive actions in future scenarios.

Step 6: Incorporate your children into decision-making

Kids want to grow up quickly. It’s in our nature as parents to thwart that desire and to teach them about walking before they run. But when it comes to respect and responsibility, it’s important to soften that parent–child buffer sometimes.

By welcoming your child into the decision-making process, they can learn about taking their time to be more aware of the environment around them, to be conscious of how other people may be feeling, and to make decisions and behave in a way that is logical rather than reactive or purely emotional.

The act of taking ownership over decisions, rather than relying on their parents to decide for them – whether that’s deciding what game to play with their sibling, or problem-solving who will get to use the slide first at the playground – is a healthy step towards your child learning about responsibility, and how to be respectful in a variety of different situations.

Step 7: Set boundaries – and stick to them

Arguably the most important tool in your child’s ‘respect armoury’ is the ability to be consistent. Once again, they will rely on what you do and how you act in order to know how to behave, at least while they are still learning.

“Boundaries with a capital ‘B’,” Vegelin says. “In other words: say as you do and do as you say. As a parent, I have to be clear in what I expect and I have to keep my word. That way my children learn they can trust me and, as a result, they will respect me.”

Children need structure and boundaries because they create routine and safety. Having clear rules around daily routines, how you treat others and the consequences when the rules aren’t followed sets boundaries.

“If there is no consequence for me or the child yelling, for example, then the behavioural standard starts to slide. The more it happens, the less I can expect my child to follow through on what I say, because I have changed the standard.”

For most adults, respect is second nature. But if children don’t know how to be respectful and responsible, they have no barometer to measure their actions against. That’s why teaching kids from a young age about respectfulness and responsibility is the best way to set themselves up for a more positive future – both socially and emotionally.

You always want the very best for your kids, even when it means having the hard conversations. To ensure you can protect the life you’ve built for your family, make sure your life insurance policy is up to date. Request a quote with Real Insurance today or call us on 1300 377 325.