Teaching Kids Respect

Modeling or teaching kids respect can be a challenging part of your positive discipline strategy. Here, you’ll find effective (and connective) ways to respond to a disrespectful child.

Mom teaching respect: how to teach a child respect and discipline

If you follow a positive or gentle parenting approach, you are likely treating your child with respect. And because children tend to respond in the ways they’ve been treated, you’re more likely to raise a respectful child.

But there will always be discipline situations that result in back-talk or disagreement. And sometimes they lead to disrespectful behavior. It’s normal, and it’s something you can work with to shape your child’s concept of respect.

Here, you’ll learn how to handle disrespect without yelling or lecturing.

Example of Teaching Respect

Alicia was at a neighborhood party when her 8-year-old walked up to her and said, “Get me a drink!”

A bit embarrassed, she said, “What do you say?”

Her son rolled his eyes as he sighed, “P-u-l-eeze.”

When Alicia said she’d get it as soon as she finished her conversation, he demanded, “But I’m thirsty NOW!” When Alicia suggested he get the drink himself, he huffed, “Then why didn’t you just say that in the first place!” Then he stormed off.

Alicia’s face was red as she turned back to the group and saw the other moms’ reactions. Each had a comment for her:

“Trust me, it just gets worse as they get older.”
“If I don’t give my toddler what he wants I pay the price. I’d rather give in than get a tantrum.”
“I’d get smacked on the mouth if I talked to my parents that way!”
“Oh, just ignore it. If you give it attention, it will get worse.”

Back Talk, Defiance, and Entitlement

Back talk and defiant children are problems many parents deal with – especially today when it seems our society can be rather rude in general. And as you know, respect goes beyond simply using good manners.

Almost as soon as a child learns to talk, parents can get back talk. It can range from outright defiance from a toddler (“No!”), or smart remarks repeated from school (“Duh, Mom!”), or disrespectful teenagers’ attitudes and eye rolls (“That’s so stupid.”)

Back talk is a trigger button for most parents. It can even make even the most loving, calm, respectful parent throw their manners out the window.

Parents often teach their children that when someone is disrespectful to them, they are still to treat others with respect. Yet, when children are disrespectful to them, parents often don’t follow their own lesson and digress into disrespectful treatment of the child. 

That’s because it’s hard to stay tuned in to your intuition when you feel like you are being attacked. And your inner guidance system can get thrown off when your buttons get pushed and your blood pressure rises.

Why Demanding Respect Doesn’t Work

Even if Alicia’s friends’ suggestions worked in the short run, there are hidden messages or negative long-term consequences with each one:

• Demanding respect usually escalates the problem and models disrespectful treatment of others.
• Warnings invite defiance.
• Giving in gives the child a payoff for their demanding behavior.
• Saying nothing implies the behavior is acceptable.
• Punishments that are totally unrelated to the offense are ineffective and the child learns nothing about how to behave properly.
• Physical punishment models and condones violence. The child is more likely to respond the same way if treated rudely.

If your child simply needs to learn manners, then a simple reminder might be in order. If you get further back talk from your child, then that behavior needs to be addressed.

The 4 Most Common Reasons Kids Are Disrespectful

The most effective ways to teach respect will address one of the four most common reasons children are disrespectful, rude, or talk back:

• They didn’t get what they wanted
• They are angry; they feel disrespected, so they think it’s okay to be disrespectful
• They think it’s funny
• They think it’s okay, because they hear their friends, other adults and/or people in the media talk that way

How to Teach Kids Respect

In addition to your gentle parenting and positive discipline strategies, here are the best ways to encourage respectful behavior.

1. Model Respect

Create a home culture where everyone is heard and valued. Everyone in your family can be role models in showing instead of telling what respect means.

Encourage family members voicing different opinions. Engage in healthy discussions where disagreements are met with tolerance and acceptance.

You’ve heard it several times, but our kids really do mimic what they see at home. Treat every member of your family respectfully and give them grace when they make mistakes. The same goes for friends, neighbors, grandparents, and other people in your life.

If you talk negatively about your child’s teacher at home, your child will struggle to respect the teacher. It doesn’t mean you teach your child to respect and trust authority figures without any discernment or critical thinking. You can still question the choices of a teacher, coach, or leader in your child’s life, but do so with a respect for that person’s role. Don’t resort to low blows or name calling unless you want your child to do the same.

2. Encourage Empathy

One of the most impactful ways to teach respect and kindness is to encourage empathy in your child. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s situation. And in almost every case, we want to be respected, so it helps to think that others do, too.

Young children are naturally empathetic. You’ll see it in how they respond to their friends, pets, or you if you’re in a sad mood. But they go through several stages of self-focus and they can lose touch with that natural empathy. You have to continually encourage it.

Here’s more on how empathetic parenting can lead to a more harmonious home.

3. Offer a Response That Addresses the Underlying Issue

Here’s where we get specific. In any parenting challenge, you always start by identifying why the child is behaving that way. Ask yourself, “What purpose does this behavior serve for the child?”

Tuning into your instincts is critical when back talk is involved.

You know your child better than anyone. And like it or not – your child knows you pretty well, too. And they know how to push your buttons. Their disrespectful behavior is often a trigger that leads to an unhelpful reaction from their parent.

You want to respond in a clear, concise, respectful way that specifically resolves the reason for the behavior, for that child in that moment, while modeling and teaching respect. Here is your universal formula for an effective response:

In one sentence:

1. Acknowledge the child’s feelings or wants, and
2. Express your concern about how the child expressed those feelings or desires.

In your second sentence:

3. Offer an acceptable way for the child to be heard.

Your responses may differ based on the root issue. Here are specific examples for each reason.

When children are disrespectful because they don’t get what they want:

• Acknowledge what they want and state that they need to ask in a respectful way. Teach them what that sounds like, if you haven’t already.

• Tell them the answer is definitely “no” if they ask disrespectfully. If they do ask respectfully, you are at least willing to consider the request and might grant it, depending on what it is.

When children are disrespectful because they are angry:

• Acknowledge that you understand they are angry and why (if you know why).

• Say you are willing to listen to their concerns, but you only communicate with people who speak respectfully to you.

• Tell them how you do want them to express their anger or opinions appropriately. Give them the exact words to use.

• Tell them you are willing to listen when they are willing to talk respectfully.

• Then disengage or calmly walk away.

When children are disrespectful because they think it’s a joke:

• Acknowledge that they may think it’s funny, but since it’s disrespectful, it could hurt someone’s feelings. Jokes make people feel good; they don’t hurt people.

• Suggest it would be nice if they apologize or make amends, but don’t force the issue.

• Drop the subject. Any further attention will reinforce the negative behavior.

When children are disrespectful because friends/media talk like that:

• Acknowledge that they might talk to their friends that way or hear other people talk that way but “in this family we treat all people with respect.”

• Say that while you’d prefer they talk to all people respectfully, you realize you can’t prevent them from talking this way to their friends. You do expect, however, that they talk to their family members, extended family and the general public with respect.

• Tell them they need to learn “discretion,” to know who they can talk to like that. If they show you that they can’t control when they talk like this, it’s a sign they’ve been spending too much time with people who do talk like this. Therefore, they are showing you they need to spend less time with those people and their social time will be cut back.

• It’s their choice whether they continue to spend social time with friends, based on whether they can show you they can talk respectfully to others.

So, the next time your child shows a lack of respect, remember to pause and take a deep breath. Figure out which of the above reasons your child is being disrespectful. Then respond (not react) helpfully, using the suggestions above, so you will be modeling and teaching respect.

More Positive Discipline Advice

If this advice resonates and you want more resources for positive discipline, these topics are sure to help. Many of them offer specific scenarios that help you work with a behavior problem.

Positive Discipline Techniques for Ages 1-7
Positive Discipline Techniques for Ages 7 and Up
Logical Consequences: How to Set Limits & Follow Through on Discipline
Why a Positive Time Out is Helpful

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One Comment

  1. What happens when you apply these methods but they stop working?