No, I'm Not Forcing My Daughter to Just 'Respect' Her Elders

The common advice to "respect your elders" isn't just outdated, it can also teach kids to accept rude behavior and create weak boundaries. Here's what experts say parents should teach their children instead.

Mother and little girl sitting on a mattress bed and laughing and talking to each other
Photo: Tanya Yatsenko/Stocksy

Recently, my 4-year-old daughter was blatantly disrespected by someone nearly 80 years her senior. The person made an insulting comment about my daughter's appearance. I fired back because that's how I was raised—my great-grandfather, an Italian immigrant in his 60s at the time, told my mom, "You don't respect people just because of their age; you respect them because they've earned your respect." It was something my mother passed on to me and has remained with me since.

But a person who witnessed the incident mentioned to me that my daughter should respect the elder person simply because of the fact they are, well, older. It got me thinking about how common it is to teach our children to just "respect their elders"—and how harmful that can be. It's an outdated practice that can force a young person to condone behavior that shouldn't be tolerated. "Some elders may believe that because they are older, they can behave in any manner without any consequences," says Jaclyn Gulotta, Ph.D., a licensed mental health counselor in private practice in Orlando, Florida.

I don't want to raise my daughter to accept negative behavior from someone just because they are older than she is. I want her to be kind and treat others how she'd want to be treated, of course, but I want her to know that age alone does not define who deserves respect.

Why 'Respect Your Elders' Isn't Always Good Advice

Don't get me wrong: the notion of respect is beautiful. The act of respecting, by definition, means to "admire (someone or something) deeply, as a result of their abilities, qualities, or achievements." It's also cultural—many ethnic groups around the world teach that reverence of older family members is critical.

But Robin Hornstein, Ph.D., a psychotherapist based in Narberth, Pennsylvania, explains that the edict to respect your elders is not exactly the most comprehensive or nuanced admonition we need to give children. "Blanketing any advice makes very little sense," says Dr. Hornstein. "An older person who is shaming, hurtful, or rude to everyone is hardly a role model, nor someone who has garnered respect."

Children should show respect when they are respected. What does that mean exactly? "Respect is honoring a person's thoughts, feelings, and ways of being," explains Dr. Hornstein. "Disrespect can be a flagrant making fun of someone else, name calling, or refusing to listen. A way that we disrespect someone is also when we use/abuse/lose other people's belongings."

Respect also means allowing all constituents to feel heard and valued, no matter their age. "Why do I, a person in my 60s, deserve more respect than a colleague in their 20s or a child I might encounter?" asks Dr. Hornstein. "Sure, we should know our elders have lived a long life, but if they have something to teach us, how it is done makes all the difference."

Why Forcing Kids to Just Respect Their Elders Can Backfire

Telling children to respect someone for the mere fact they are older can teach them their feelings do not matter and make them lower their standards of what to expect from other people. "We want to teach our children to be kind to everyone but if someone is not kind to you, you shouldn't feel you have to overstep your own healthy boundaries just because they are older," says Dr. Gulotta.

Pushing children to devalue themselves and forcing them to be respectful can also teach kids that it's OK to let someone treat you poorly, Dr. Gulotta points out.

Dr. Hornstein agrees, adding, "It can make them feel belittled, unimportant, or even question their own reality." And it can also be dangerous. For example, says Dr. Hornstein, if there is a family friend or relative who practices inappropriate touch, "how are we helping our kids know when to stand up to adults?"

Instead, parents "should protect kids from these adults who are abusive and not ask them to be respectful of them," explains Dr. Hornstein. "We don't want kids growing up feeling like they did something wrong by not wanting to kiss a person who is scaring them or mean to them."

What Parents Can Teach Kids Instead

It can be helpful for parents to explain to their kids that even adults may not know the best way to communicate and may make mistakes and poor decisions, says Dr. Gulotta. "Children should not feel forced to stay in a disrespectful situation and should learn how to make their own healthy boundaries," she adds.

Parents should also encourage children to use their voices to express themselves and learn to tell someone they do not appreciate being mistreated. And parental support is critical. "If a child feels disrespected by someone, parents should listen and validate their child's emotions," says Dr. Gulotta.

Role modeling healthy coping skills and self-confidence can also help children understand that disrespectful behavior is often a reflection of how that person feels and not to personalize those words with their own worth.

The Bottom Line

We must create positive messages for children to know and understand their worth and teaching them that people deserve their respect simply because they are older isn't steering them in the right direction. "Children should not be taught to lower their own standards due to outdated phrases," says Dr. Gulotta. "We want children to learn that they deserve the same respect they are giving someone else."

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