James, age seven, and Elizabeth, age five, “fought constantly,” usually because Elizabeth would try to do whatever James was doing. Their mom says she would then yell at them, which only made everyone more upset. Through a family meeting about this problem, the mother and kids worked out the following plan:
- No hitting or yelling by anyone.
- James will play with Elizabeth at least once a day.
- Elizabeth will try to play by herself sometimes.
- Everybody should try to say and do nice things.
The most important part of this agreement was point number four because it built up the positive habit of being nice to each other. The mother comments:
We posted our solutions on the fridge. Next to that was a list for writing down nice things said and done during the next two days. James agreed to record Elizabeth’s additions. In our follow-up meeting two days later, we read all the nice things people had said and done. We decided that everyone had indeed tried to be kinder.
The takeaway? Character development is a process of forming good habits and breaking bad ones. Good character develops through practice, practice, practice. That’s true for kids, and true for us as parents. There are six ways to teach respect, both practicing the positive and curbing the negative.
6 Simple Things You Can Do to Teach Respect
- Respect your child. Show a sincere interest in how your kids think and feel. Draw them out and really listen to them. Treat them as individuals; take a genuine interest in their lives. Engage them in back-and-forth questions where you ask your child a question (e.g., “What was the best part and the hardest part of your day?”) and then ask them to ask you the same question.
- Require respect. Demonstrate what respect sounds like and looks like as shown by tone, content and body language—and do the same with disrespect (because kids hear and see so much disrespect these days, don’t assume they know the difference). Have a “no tolerance” policy for disrespectful talk and less-than-respectful non-verbal responses like rolling the eyes or stomping off in a huff. Teach your children how to express even strong feelings—we all have them—in a respectful way (“Mom, I don’t think you’re being fair!”). Remember to compliment them when they speak politely and respectfully (“Thank you for saying ‘Please’”).
- Model respect in all your words and actions. Set an example of respect by how you talk to each other as parents and in how you treat and talk about others outside the family (such as relatives, neighbors, and teachers). When you argue, avoid abusive language and make up quickly. Avoid uncharitable talk about other people—and explain why such talk is not kind or respectful (“We don’t like it when people say bad things about us behind our backs, so we shouldn’t do it to others”).
- Insist on respect in all family interactions. Don’t allow siblings to tell each other to “shut up,” call names or be rude or disrespectful in any other way. Teach them to look at another person (not their screens) when being spoken to. Mutual respect should be an explicit expectation—part of your “family way.”
- Correct disrespect firmly. When kids speak or act disrespectfully, give immediate corrective feedback: “Can you say that in a more respectful way?” “What is your tone of voice?” “Do you need to go to your room, calm down and we’ll talk about this later?”
- Establish a consequence for disrespect that continues after a correction. In a calm moment, explain to your child: “There needs to be a consequence if you continue to be disrespectful after one reminder. Let’s talk about that—what would be a fair and effective consequence?” When kids help to set the consequence, they’re more likely to accept it as fair when you have to enforce it.
Thomas Lickona is a developmental psychologist and author or editor of nine books on character development, including How to Raise Kind Kids: And Get Respect, Gratitude, and a Happier Family in the Bargain (Penguin, April 2018).