Why is respect so important?

Respect is the basis of all healthy human relationships. Parents (like teachers) deserve — and need — a special kind of respect because of their position of authority and responsibility.

We’re the head of the family. We’re responsible for our children’s welfare, their health and safety, and helping them grow in mind, competence, and character. If we believe in a God who entrusts our children to us, we’re also responsible for trying to bring them into a relationship with God.

All of that will be much more difficult if children aren’t receptive to our guidance — if they don’t have an attitude of basic respect for our authority, rules, and moral teaching.

How well we teach our children to respect our authority lays the foundation for their future moral development. We can’t do our job as parents without their respect.

How can we command and cultivate that respect? Here are 8 ways.

1. Believe and act like you have the right to be respected

We know from decades of research that an “authoritative” parenting style is associated with the most positive character outcomes for kids. A key characteristic of authoritative parenting is the confident exercise of authority.

In order to exercise authority confidently, you must first respect yourself. A mother once called into a radio show on parenting and said to me, “my daughter is 23. She is verbally abusive to me. She treats me like dirt under her feet. I don’t know what to do”.

I replied that it was not too late to say, even to her grown daughter: “I respect myself too much to allow anyone to talk to me like that, least of all my own child.”

I suggested she also tell her daughter that if she wished to talk further, they would have to first agree to speak to each other in a respectful way. 

We get the respect we require and receive the disrespect we allow.

2. Respect your child

If we want respect from our kids, we should extend it to them. If we want them to say please and thank you to us, we should practice the same courtesy.

If we don’t want our children ever to speak sarcastically to us, we should avoid all sarcasm in speaking to them. If we want them to speak in a respectful tone of voice, we should model that, too.

We should also respect our children in a deeper sense — by treating them as the unique individuals they are. Show a genuine interest in their thoughts and feelings and what’s happening in their lives. Set aside one-on-one time for meaningful conversation and doing things together.

Our children are more likely to respect us when they feel respected and loved.

3. Model respect in all your words and actions

As parents, we should model respect by how we treat each other. One mother remembers, “My parents weren’t perfect, but they were respectful of one another and supported each other in their childrearing decisions. No one in our family cursed”.

Other ways to model respect:

  • Demonstrate it by how you treat and talk about people outside the family, including relatives, neighbours, and teachers. The mother who says, about a child’s homework, “This is a dumb assignment!” is disrespecting the teacher. Disrespect often begins in low-level ways. Kids become desensitised to it.
  • Try to avoid unnecessarily talking about other people’s faults and failings. Explain to kids that we don’t like it when people say bad things about us behind our backs. Try to be the kind of person who sees and comments on the good in others.
  • When you argue as parents, do you maintain respect? Avoid abusive language? Make a real effort to “active listen” to the other person’s viewpoint (“OK, I hear you saying that… ”) so he or she feels heard and understood? Do you reconcile and forgive soon after a “dust-up” instead of holding on to anger and resentment? Studies find that healthy marriages often have “reconciliation rituals” that help them make up and move on.

4. Insist on respect in all family interactions

Don’t allow siblings to tell each other to “shut up,” call names, or be rude, sarcastic, or disrespectful in any other way. Require them to say please and thank you to each other, in a sincere way. Explain that manners like these demonstrate respect for the other person.

Teach them not to interrupt. Remind them to look at a person who is speaking to them — not at their screens.

Affirm them when they show respect in these ways.  

5. Every time kids are disrespectful, give clear corrective feedback (sharply when needed)

For example:

“Is that being respectful?”

“What is your tone of voice?”

“Could you please say that again, in a more respectful way?”

“You may not have intended to be disrespectful, but it came across that way.”

Correct every disrespectful behavior. Even something like kids’ rolling their eyes when you ask them to do a chore or remind them of a rule they’re forgetting.

Don’t let kids get away with disrespectful behavior just because you’re in a public place.  A mother and her son, about 10, were shopping in a department store for a shirt for him. She held up a shirt she thought was big enough, but then said, “maybe I should get one size bigger”.

The boy replied, in a snarky tone (loud enough for a clerk to hear), “yeah, the way you shrink things!” The mother just ignored his disrespectful remark.

A father once said to me, “I try to pick my battles, so I let the little things go”. Moments before, he had allowed his nine-year-old son to rudely refuse to return a greeting to an adult guest to whom the father had just introduced the boy.

Later, when the father and I had a chance to talk privately over lunch, I respectfully explained to him why I considered it a mistake to overlook any instance of disrespect by a child:

It’s correcting the little things that teaches standards of behaviour and forms a child’s conscience. If we don’t firmly and consistently correct disrespectful behaviour, we’ll find our tolerance zone for disrespect getting wider and wider — and our children’s disrespectful attitudes and behaviour getting steadily worse. If we don’t correct rudeness in a 6-year-old, we shouldn’t be surprised if we’re dealing with swearing and door-slamming when they’re 16.

6. Establish a consequence for disrespect if it continues even after you correct it

In a calm moment, explain to your child: “Look, respect is a serious matter. There needs to be a consequence if you continue to be disrespectful after one reminder. Let’s talk about what would be a fair and effective consequence.”

7. Coach kids in how to show respect

Physically demonstrate, even role-play, what respect looks and sounds like as shown by tone, content, and body language. Don’t assume kids know this. Do the same with disrespect. Kids hear and see so much disrespect — in how other kids talk to their parents, for example — that they may not know what we mean by “a disrespectful tone of voice”.

8. Create an intentional family culture that emphasises mutual respect

What if your family interactions up until now have included a lot of disrespect and you’ve let that go? It’s not too late to change that by taking deliberate steps to create a respectful family culture.

You’ll find it easier to promote respect in individual family interactions if you can get your family as a whole to make a commitment to being more respectful. So sit down together and say something like this:

We’d like to make some changes that will help us all get along and have more peace and happiness as a family. We’d like to establish a family policy of everybody really trying to show respect in how they talk to each other. What would that look like?

In this spirit, consider writing out and posting a family mission statement that includes respect as one of the family virtues you agree to strive for. I also urge you to consider having short family sit-downs now and again where you ask, “How are we doing?” Following through will increase accountability.

Be encouraged by gradual improvements, and don’t give up!

Thomas Lickona (thomaslickona.com) is a developmental psychologist, director of the Center for the 4th and 5th Rs, and the author of How to Raise Kind Kids. Reprinted from Psychology Today by permission of the author.

Thomas Lickona (www.thomaslickona.com) is the author of nine books on character development and directs the Center for the 4th and 5th...