Whenever I ask a group of parents what they want for their children, the topic of respect inevitably comes up. Parents want their children to be respected, but parents also want to feel respected by their children. Many parents grew up not feeling respected themselves and most parents, it turns out, grew up having at least one experience (most had many experiences) of not being respected by an adult in their life.

We deeply want the respect of others in our lives, especially those we share space with, physically and/or emotionally. When we aren’t feeling that respect, we may find ourselves feeling angry. Or scared. We may react in ways we do not like.

So what is respect anyway? How do children learn respect? And how do we get more of it in our families?

Traditional parenting, the way many of us grew up, alludes that respect is something that is demanded. We want our children to look like they’re doing what we tell them to do, especially in front of others. And if we’re not feeling respected by our child, we need to get angry at them to have them be respectful of us; We yell, we punish, we get angry.

But what is respect?

Treating someone else in a way we’d like to be treated. Having patience. Being gentle. Speaking softly. Caring about what someone else says or needs. Maybe you have some ideas of your own. When have you felt respected? What words would you use to describe that experience? What would it look like for you to respect your child?

How do children learn respect?

Young children learn everything primarily through modeling. Research and everyday parenting experiences have shown us that if we want our child to learn something, we need to do it. Most people have experienced a very young child using a swear word. Often times, it is used correctly in context and even with the right inflection. This is because children learn by watching and listening to what we do. Just like they’re watching when we behave in ways we don’t want our children to imitate, they are also watching and absorbing when we do act in ways that are worthy of modeling. If we want our children to respect us, we need to respect them.

We want our children to authentically respect us, not just act like they respect us by doing what we have told them to do when we’re looking. Parents I talk to want their children to genuinely respect them. And that level of respect can only be learned by having someone model that behavior and teach them what respect looks like.

Respecting children at different ages:

Respect with a newborn means responding to her cries.

Respecting a one year old means giving him limits while still respecting his feelings.

Respect for a two year old means lovingly creating a rhythm to her day so that she knows what to expect.

Respecting a six year old means setting appropriate limits and teaching the child appropriate ways to interact with the world. And sometimes it is recognizing that his missed attempts at respect are due to a misunderstanding of the situation, rather than being willfully disrespectful.

Respect for an eleven year old means listening to what he has to say without judgment and saving your reaction to the way it was said for a conversation at a later time.

When we can remember what respect feels like and felt like when you were growing up (or what the absence of respect felt like), we can start to make different choices in how we speak and interact with our child.

If you’re interested in an in-depth discussion about Respect and the concept of modeling, check out Module #2 in our Connection Parenting on-demand series. Dive in to discover what respect really means to you in your life and what it can look like in your family now.

Do you have stories of making a different choice in the face of what could be interpreted as disrespectful behavior from your child? Have you created a positive response that is different than what your own parents did? What situations do you find the most challenging when it comes to respect or not showing respect, either from your kids or yourself? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Originally published on The Consciously Parenting Blog June 21, 2010

Rebecca Thompson Hitt

Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

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