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How to Raise a Respectful Kid

Amber Brandt  |  October 10, 2017

"One of the best lessons a child can learn is “a little kindness goes a long way.” Respectful people have an easier time building healthy relationships, navigating through tough decisions (because they realize their behaviors directly impact others) and ultimately help them earn respect from others. Raising a respectful kid does them a true favor. As a parent, you can set your child on course toward developing empathy and respect simply by demonstrating the behavior yourself. Here are a few ideas to consider:

Stay calm. It’s natural to feel a sense of panic or split-second anger when you observe unsightly behavior from your child. While at times it’s immediately clear they’re being inappropriate and they know it, there are other times where our perception isn’t reality. Kids do silly, innocent things when they’re not paying attention, and sometimes they simply don’t realize a certain behavior is actually disrespectful. When there’s room to reasonably give your child the benefit of the doubt, do your best to give it. Watch how other children respond to your child’s behavior and determine how to calmly approach the situation before running to discipline. Kindly drawing their attention to what they’ve done — or how they’ve made another child feel — is a great approach.

HALT. Kids are generally good-natured and typically only demonstrate behaviors that could be seen as “acting out” because they’re trying to fill a legitimate need in a misguided way. Identifying the root cause can help you figure out whether they’re intentionally being disrespectful or if their behavior is simply a by-product of a personal need. H.A.L.T. is a simple acronym that represents four of these key needs: is your child hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Get down on their level and determine how best you can help. Finding a way to meet their need will often eliminate the behavior and course-correct your day together.

Practice authenticity. According to The Danish Way of Parenting by authors and psychologists Jessica Alexander and Iben Sandahl, demonstrating authenticity and honesty with your emotions is a good way to help your child learn how to sort through their own. Ultimately, being kind and honest with oneself helps us to practice this in our other relationships as well. “Emotional honesty, not perfection, is what children truly need from their parents. Children are always observing how you feel anger, joy, frustration, contentment, and success and how you express it in the world. We have to model honesty for our children and let them know it is OK to feel all of their emotions… Acknowledging and accepting all emotions, even the hard ones, early on makes it easier to maneuver in the world…” and to learn what it looks like to treat others kindly. When a child understands that emotions are OK, but it’s what we do with them that really matters, they’ll begin to develop a greater awareness of how to treat others respectfully.

Draw attention to the value of others. It’s human nature to zero in on things we don’t like about others or even exploit what we perceive as different. This is a systemic problem we see played out across our culture on a daily basis. But it doesn’t take that much more effort to focus on what is good. You can help stop bullying before it has a chance to happen by placing value on others. Exhibit the behavior you wish to see. 
Teach your child the people matter — no matter who they are — and everyone has something wonderful to offer. “I really appreciated how the librarian spent all that time helping me find the right book. She really knows her stuff, eh?” or boil it right down to their level, “I noticed Rebecca invited you to play on the swings with her. Isn’t she a kind girl?”

Help your child develop empathy. Let’s say your child comes home in tears over an altercation they had with a classmate. A few simple questions can help to validate their feelings, while helping them to move beyond judgment and consider what may be below the surface. “I see you’re upset. I’m so sorry. And Ethan was angry? Why, what happened? What do you think about what happened?” Perhaps there are big changes happening in Ethan’s family or he’s struggling with math. Helping your child consider the outburst may have been motivated by something deeper may help them see beyond their hurt and consider their classmate with greater compassion. Empathy can be a great equalizer. Remind your child that everyone is in the process of growing up, and we all make mistakes. Our goal should be to move through the world with greater patience and understanding.