Communicating with respect

Children are watching our every move; model the behavior you would like to see.

Teaching the concept of respect to children is not an easy task. Children and adults today are exposed to a barrage of media with daily (and hourly) examples of disrespect and poor listening skills. Watching the evening news with a child can easily become a lesson in how not to treat others; louder isn’t better, interrupting is not a great communication strategy, name-calling is not acceptable in a civilized society and constant repetition to make your point will not necessarily mean your audience will understand or even “get it.” Being rude seems commonplace in sports, politics, the workplace, schools and in family homes.

How can you teach the positive life skill of respect to a child or the children in your life when examples from popular culture, the music world and powerful people seemingly contradict every lesson? Michigan State University Extension suggests you consider first what you do and say on a daily basis. What example are you setting? Are you modeling respect in your own daily interactions with colleagues, your neighbors and your life partner? Consider who is spending time with your child. What other adults and influences are affecting your child’s behavior?

Children are like sponges when it comes to mimicking behaviors. The old “monkey see, monkey do” statement certainly applies to the little people who watch us with curiosity and strive to be just like us. A popular county song, “Watching You,” shares real life examples of a child who copies his dad – for good and for ill. The child mimics Dad’s bad language as well as his dad’s real-life strengths. In the lyrics of a Harry Chapin song, “Cat’s in the Cradle,” the singer laments a similar thought of “he’d grown up just like me, my boy was just like me.”

So, what does respect really mean and how can you teach it? The Merriam Webster Learner’s Dictionary defines respect as “a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way.” This explanation may be difficult to convey to a young child, so you might consider an alternate way to explain this important term.

Media can be a positive teaching tool for young children. Consider watching this short video clip with your child where Elmo from Sesame Street introduces the word “respect.” Follow the video with a discussion on ways you and your child have witnessed examples of respect. Give concrete examples that are appropriate for your child’s age and stage of development. Use language that a young child understands. You may want to expand the discussion to sharing examples you have seen where someone was disrespectful and talk about why that may have happened.

Initiate mealtime discussions about your child’s day. Talk about your day. Share examples of how you witnessed respectful behavior. Pay close attention to your child’s behavior and point out times when they displayed respect for their mother, sibling or friend; catch them being good.

Children’s books are another way you can teach children a concept that may seem difficult to explain. There are many books for young children that can be shared with your family to open a discussion on “respect,” including “The Way I Act” by Steve Metzger, “I Just Don’t Like the Sound of NO!” by Julia Cook or “Are You Respectful Today?” by Kris Yankee and Marian Nelson. Consider a booklist from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning for additional titles you can explore at your local library.

Guiding your child’s behavior is not a one-time, sit down lesson. Teaching respect is an on-going responsibility and opportunity to help grow a child who is kind, respectful of other people, personal belongings, animals and the world around them.

For more on information caregiving or family issues that affect you, visit the MSU Extension and eXtension, contact an MSU Extension expert in your area or call 888-678-3464.

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