You're scanning the frozen vegetables at the supermarket—peas, carrots, or corn?—while just down the aisle, your 6-year-old is in a rapture of ice-cream novelties. There’s a rainbow- swirled something, a sprinkle-dotted something else, and her eyes are sparkling. “We should probably get going,” you say, only now she’s kneeling on the floor to admire the bottom row. What you really want to be doing is checking out, driving home, and getting dinner started. (I mean, what you really, really want to be doing is climbing into a lavender bath, but whatever.) What your child really wants to be doing is studying the ice cream. And because she’s a person, too, her interests—whether or not you share them—deserve respect. (Now you know how she felt when you dragged her uninterested self to that art museum.)
Instead of saying, “Seriously, the ice cream again?” you can say, “I know you’re still looking. Do you think another two minutes is enough time?” or maybe you compromise and she meets you in the checkout line, or maybe you snap a photo of the case so she can study it in the car—or maybe you simply assert that it’s time to go, but politely.
Is spending more time in the freezer aisle the solution to the ills of the world? To racism, gun violence, and the kind of aggressive entitlement that produces the need for a #MeToo movement? Of course not. But treating our kids with respect is how we raise them to be respectful, and a healthy society must have respect at its foundation. These types of challenging supermarket (or bedtime or morning or car-trip) moments—when you are reminded of someone’s essential difference from you—are when respect is both most important and most difficult to demonstrate.
We know it when we feel it, but what is respect? Thomas Lickona, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist and author of How to Raise Kind Kids, defines respect as “showing regard for the intrinsic worth of someone or something. We treat everyone, even people we dislike, as having rights, dignity, and worth equal to our own.” And Lizzie Post, coauthor of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 19th edition, says, “Respect means making choices that build relationships.”
Above all, respect should be mutual. We should give it to our children and expect it in return. You can understand that your child is upset because the cereal box tipped over and all the oaty-o’s are now on the floor—and that will make it easier for your child to understand that, even though you’re available to comfort him and help find the broom, you are not available to sop up all his rage and negativity. Respect, like the Golden Rule, means treating others the way you hope to be treated yourself. With that in mind, here are some ways to approach parenting that will help you raise kids who will make the world a kinder, more respectful place.
A good way to practice is with a low-stakes request: Your son wants to wear unmatched socks? Let him! Respect your child’s preferences and style (even if you’d never wear a plaid shirt under a party dress) as a way of laying the groundwork for respecting the fact that this human is different from you. You want to get out of the rain, but your preschooler wants to stand outside and watch the water gushing down from the gutters. What does respecting that difference look like? It could be grabbing an umbrella from the house, waiting inside with a big towel, or saying, “You’re super excited about water today! Let’s run you a bath. It’s too cold to stay out in the rain.” The particular content of your response is less important than the fact that it honors your child’s interest.
And remember that however you speak to your child is the way he’ll speak to you and everybody else. For example, “Ugh! Why do you always take so long to put on your shoes?” could be better expressed as a respectful observation: “You’re working so hard to tie your shoes! I love that. I wonder if we should start getting ready earlier so that you have more time to practice without my rushing you.” Similarly, “Let me get you a sponge, sweetie” teaches respect (and problem solving) in a way that “You’re always so messy” doesn’t. And if you screw up because you’re an actual person and not a Zen-scented candle? Apologize.
Research shows that children benefit from developmentally appropriate participation in decisions that affect their own lives, says Dr. Lickona. Asking, “What should we serve for dinner when your friend comes over tomorrow?” or “What music should we listen to in the car?” shows kids that you see them as people who have feelings and their own point of view.
Dr. Lickona recommends sit-down family discussions he calls “fair hearings,” which involve offering a responsive, democratic ear to your children’s opinions. You want your kids to see that you are doing your best to listen respectfully, even if you disagree with them. As they grow up, the issues will only get bigger—quitting chorus, questioning faith, dating someone you don’t like—and it’s important to have the practice of mutual respect solidly in place.
This doesn’t mean kids always get what they want, and it doesn’t mean there’s no room for strong feelings. But instead of saying, “Don’t be disrespectful,” try to listen to the feelings behind what seems like disrespect. I remember taking my 3-year-old from a playdate she wasn’t ready to leave, and she cried and kicked her little rain boots and I calmly explained that we had to pick up her brother. It wasn’t negotiable, but I could hear how sad and frustrated she was. I didn’t try to coerce her or make her consent to it. I just did what needed to be done and let her have her feelings about it. “You’re so mad!” I said to her, “You weren’t ready to leave yet!” And she said, “I wasn’t!” and cried for a while. And then she stopped crying.
Listen, and model active listening by putting down your phone, making eye contact, and asking follow-up questions. Dr. Lickona calls good listening “an act of love,” and it really is. One day those kids will have phones (if they don’t already), and you’ll want them to have had plenty of experience with you putting yours down to look up and tune in. Post tells parents that it’s okay to be persistent and say, “I need you to look up at me so I know you’re paying attention.” Let’s hope for the same from adults. (I’ve trained myself to hear the front door opening as the cue to close my laptop and put my phone down.)
Yes, this is also known as etiquette, but I’m not talking about using the proper fork on a yacht. I’m talking about “Please pass the pasta” and “Thank you so much for coming to my birthday party” and other gracious responses that say “I appreciate your efforts on my behalf and respect the time you took.” You’ll also want to help your kids learn to apologize and take responsibility for their actions if they do something (even by accident) that hurts someone else. If they don’t have the language for what they want to say, you can help by offering some. Not “Your silly action figure broke, and I don’t know why you still have that thing anyway,” but “I broke the arm off your Boba Fett action figure when I was trying to stuff a lightsaber into his hand. I know that he was one of your favorites, and I’m sorry.”
Yes, your child may go through phases of really wanting to monologue about Minecraft, and you will want to help him learn the give-and-take of mutual conversation. Showing an interest in other people is an important antidote to me-me-me narcissism—the kind that is both annoying and, in a bigger way, treacherous. Teach your kids that good conversation involves asking questions. Because even if the question is about something small (“Has string cheese always been your favorite after-school snack?”), it is part of a bigger curiosity that says, in essence: I know that you are different from me. Who are you, and how do you feel about the world?
This means noticing what’s good about the people in your lives and talking about it. You might say, “Katie has gotten so good at the recorder! I can’t believe that she and her friends can play ‘Hot Cross Buns’ with all that cool harmony” or “I love how Grandma always remembers that your favorite color is blue. She’s so thoughtful.” Positive gossip is basically the opposite of behind-someone’s-back nastiness, and it’s wonderful for developing gratitude, appreciation, and—yes—respect.
Let’s say that you usually, kindly, bring your child a snack to eat in the car after school, but you forgot today, and let’s say that your child reflects on this lapse by rolling his eyes and mumbling, “What a stupidhead.” Take a deep breath and count to ten. Remember that in order to teach respect, you need to show respect. Then model respectful limit setting: “I’m sorry that I forgot your Goldfish crackers, and I know you’re hungry,” you might say. “But do you hear the way your voice sounds when you’re talking to me like that? It makes me feel bad, and it also makes me not really want to do nice things for you.” I would ask for an apology too.
Broaden your child’s mind so that respect and curiosity—rather than negative judgment—is her automatic response to difference. This might mean talking about what was most interesting at a neighbor’s bar mitzvah, eating at the Korean restaurant that just opened in town, or going to the gay-pride parade. Read a book about kids all around the world, one like DK’s Children Just Like Me, so you can talk about what’s similar and different. (They love toys too. They get their water from a well.) All of those habits mean that you’ll be creating your family identity around the practice of respect. Your children will think, “This is our family’s way.” And it will be.
Kids are going to do and say disrespectful things—maybe because they’re oblivious or testing limits or learning the ropes. Consider these scenarios and how you might (respectfully) respond to them.
Your child walks with muddy shoes across the floor you just mopped.
SAY: “I’m frustrated because I just cleaned the floor and now it’s dirty again. Would you please grab a sponge and wipe up those muddy spots?”
Your child is building a Lego castle and pays no attention to you when you say it’s time for dinner.
SAY: “I see you’re busy building over there, but I feel upset when you ignore me. Come and tell me about what you’re making while we eat, and then you can play more afterward.”
Your child refuses to put on her coat to go to dance class, even though it’s freezing out.
SAY: “I didn’t realize how important this was to you. You don’t have to wear your coat, but I still want you to stay warm. Can you find enough layers to make that work?”
Your child says, “More mashed potatoes.”
SAY: “I’m so thrilled that you liked them! In our family, we always ask by saying ‘please.’ Can you please try asking again?”
Your child is angry about bedtime and calls you a jerk.
SAY: “I know you’re frustrated, but you can’t speak rudely to me. After you apologize, you can pick out a few books we can read together. Or if you’re still feeling like you’re going to speak to me in a mean way, you can go right to bed. It’s up to you.”