Teaching Children Respect

“Do as I say, not as I do”.

You’ve probably heard this said at least once in your life, said by a parent to a child. It’s usually meant wryly or humorously, but the implication behind the phrase is profound.

You can tell a child to embrace a certain behavior till the cows come home – but if you yourself take the opposite action, that is what they will learn.  Every time!

teaching children respectI was sitting recently with my friend, Elsa. We were discussing her teenage daughter. Amanda had come into the room and promptly got into a disagreement with her mother, which escalated at the speed of light into shouting, defiance, and Amanda storming out, deaf to her mother’s entreaties and commands. The situation went from calm quicker than Han Solo accelerating into hyperspace, in the movie “Star Wars”.

“Sorry about that,” said Elsa, turning to me with a weary sigh.  She grimaced. “The truth is, every mistake you make when they’re little comes back a thousand fold to kick you in the teeth, as soon as they hit their teens. You get away with nothing!”

Elsa had a shrewd point.  Children who hear their parents swear… will use foul language themselves. Children who see their parents steal… will steal.  Seems simple enough, right?

The problem begins in those vast areas of gray… the areas we don’t know we operate in, because we are wearing the blindfolds we ourselves picked up from our own parents. For example, if they hear us always complain – about life, people, circumstances – our children will become negative people. We ourselves may even think we’re complaining humorously – but we’re still complaining.

If they see us being timid and self-effacing, they will not respect themselves.  If they see us being high-handed and arrogant, they will become arrogant, insensitive adults.

This brings a specific incident to mind.  Years ago, one of my neighbors was an elderly man who ran a specialty comic book store. I did not know him well – we mostly wished each other good morning as he opened up his store for the day, but I got the impression he was shy, nervous and not too well off. The store was open six days a week, and he was there when I left for work in the morning, and there when I came home at night, still waiting for customers: But it was always closed on Sunday.  He confided to me that Sunday was his day for himself, and he obviously prized this time highly.

One Sunday as I set out to catch the bus, I was surprised to see him there, loading boxes of comic books into his little compact car. He admitted he was off to a comic book convention. Suddenly, with the air of one revealing a wonderful treat, he added that he was really looking forward to eating a Bacon-and-Egg McMuffin and Hash Brown patty at McDonald’s on the way – that is, if he could get away before they “stopped doing breakfast”. I took the hint, and wished him a good day at the convention.

As I stood waiting for the bus, however, a Mercedes Benz pulled up beside my neighbor, and an immaculately dressed man and a boy of around twelve got out.  I did not catch everything that was said, but the gist of it was… my neighbor kept firmly explaining he was not open; that he was only there to collect supplies and was late in his schedule… all to no avail.  The father loudly over-talked and bullied my neighbor into changing his plans, foregoing his much-anticipated McDonald’s breakfast to open his store for the man’s son (who ended up browsing for twenty minutes and buying nothing.)

As they left the store, I the heard the man tell his son: “It doesn’t matter that we didn’t buy anything. That’s not the point. You have to let these people know you don’t take “no” for an answer.”

I thought to myself:  “What a horrible lesson to teach your child: To disregard other people’s rights, priorities and preferences and show them how to bully… to teach them that you are better than anyone else!”

He was also teaching his son that he, the son, was the center of the Universe; that his needs came before anyone else’s.

When this man is in a nursing home, complaining bitterly that his son never comes to see him, he will probably never realize he is reaping the rewards of his own forceful teaching. He will not be proud of his son for focusing on his own needs and not his father’s.

To sum it all up: When teaching children respect, you have to model it – not demand it

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  1. Thank you for another inspirational article, Ellen, very thought-provoking. Hmmm…

  2. Awesome thats all I can say…..This is soo true. Thanks for the great article on this!!

  3. Hi Ellen,

    Thank you for this thought provoking story. Some of the thoughts it provoked in me (in no particular order):

    1) It seems to me that the father was trying to teach his son something of value but, without respect. As an old man in a nursing home he may well benefit from his son’s determination to get him the best care he can and his ‘won’t take no for an answer’ approach. By then too, the son may have come to realise the weakness in his father’s approach and learnt himself how to moderate his own drive to get something done with the respect missing in his childhood.

    2) What’s the good intention behind the father’s behaviour – in a highly competitive and individualistic culture that determination to get what you want is highly prized as well as necessary, and is utilised by many to ‘succeed’, in the terms of the culture anyway (mercedes benz). So given his environment the father was trying to help his son to the skills that would help him not to be among the downtrodden (Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I’d rather be a hammer than a nail’ summed this up brilliantly for a whole new generation).

    3) The boy clearly had not yet lost his sense of right behaviour as the fact that the father was verbalising the lesson as well as demonstrating it suggests that the boy felt and had somehow expressed unease with the injustice of his father’s overbearing behaviour.

    4) In a culture of self-help (based on the belief that I can be whatever I want to be, and i have the right, and duty, to strive to satisfy my ambitions) we need what you are offering – a way to help us connect with the good in ourselves and our children, and to connect with and respect the good in those around us. We need this to be the person we were born to be and to ‘be the change we want to see’

    5) it is an illusion to imagine that we are the author’s of our own destiny, we need each other and your raising small souls initiative is contributing to helping us realise that and equipping us to play our part towards the solution to the world’s problems (all problems are human problems)

    6) Thank you for your excellent contribution to bringing out the best in ourselves and in others!

    7) Boy, your bus service was slow!

  4. Linda Baker says:

    Great, and very inspiring. I had hoped you would have gone and got the old man his egg mcmuffin!

  5. WIth my now 10 year old daughter who has special needs, we respect each other (which is expected).She knows that I’ll always be her mom, and that when she becomes an adult than we can bond as friends.

  6. As a preschool teacher in a church-based school, I have an advantage in that I can talk to my three’s about the Golden Rule – treat others the way you want to be treated. (It’s a great rule for everyone, but somehow, it’s now seen as too religious to be taught in other places.) Children are able to get it, if you just keep talking about what it means and modeling it. After a while, you can hear them using it with each other. It takes a tremendous amount of work, but I’d like to think we are making a positive impact. Maybe it will make a difference when we get older and these children are the ones looking after us. 🙂
    Glad you brought this up and for this wonderful illustration, Ellen. I plan on sharing it.

  7. Wow!!! I’m surprised there are only a few comments. Thanks for reminding me that teaching is by example… God Bless you!!!

  8. HI, i am Sweta. I am a mother of 3nhalf yr old kid. I am very happy to find this site to guide my kid and to teach him in more better way.

  9. Pat Baker says:

    Excellent article! I’ve worked in Nursing Homes and have “met” that man’s son. I got into a conversation with a son one day who rarely visited his dad. He wanted to justify to me why and his excuse went along the lines of having poor examples growing up and trying to do better then his parents had. That was a long time ago and I’d forgotten about that conversation until I read your peice. Thanks!