During my growing up years, respect was a principle in which my parents believed. My father was a real stickler for respect, which may have been partly a result of his law enforcement background. In those days, discipline administered by fathers often included a swat on the backside.
I will never forget one morning as I was leaving for school. My dad had worked the graveyard shift for the Highway Patrol and was coming home just as I was getting ready to head out the door to school.
My mom had asked me to do something, and I responded in my typical pre-teen fashion with a disrespectful comment.
My dad was hanging up his jacket in the closet and took the wooden coat hanger he had in his hand and broke it over my behind and told me that I should never speak to my mother that way. It was a lesson I learned the hard way, but one that has stuck with me all these years.
Now, I certainly would not advocate that approach in today's world for teaching respect. But the concept is at least as important today as it was then. Teaching children respect is perhaps harder than ever given that we live in an "it's all about me" world and a popular culture in which respect has fallen out of favor.
The concept of respect is one that reflects values and behaviors like courtesy, kindness, calm, politeness, following the Golden Rule, and resisting tendencies to be biased, judgmental, or a bully.
And it is a concept that has equal application to adults and children.
So, recognizing that respect is becoming in some circles a lost art, what can a father do to make sure his children learn the value of and the behaviors born of respect?
- Start early. Fathers should work on teaching respect to their children in their earliest years. As soon as they are able to communicate and model behavior, we should teach them to respect others, particularly as adults in their life. When they want to interrupt an adult in conversation, remind them that it is impolite and that they should wait for an open moment. Help them to behave appropriately in the homes of grandparents or other people. Teach them to use good manners in public and private settings. Help them to respect the possessions and privacy of others. These are all concepts children should learn as soon as possible.
- Model respectful behavior. Children learn best by example, and they will learn most of what they learn about respect from watching you. Treat their mother with respect; honor her by listening to her, taking her opinions with deference and always speaking calmly and respectfully to her. Show respect to your child as well. Respect their bodies, their sense of space, their possessions. Speak calmly and evenly without losing your temper, calling names or belittling them. One young tween I worked with once told me that she didn't mind so much when her parents swore in general, but when they called her a name, she was devastated. Keep your language appropriate and avoid teasing your children too much or too often.
- Listen attentively. One of the most important ways we feel respected is when others listen to us. Give your children your full attention when you are in conversation. Put down whatever else you are doing; turn away from the TV or the computer screen and give your child eye contact. Focus on what they are saying and the feelings they are communicating, and then reflect back those feelings and thoughts to them.
- Teach and model honesty. Another way people feel respect is when others are honest with them. Communicate clear expectations and let them know gently when they have met them or when they have failed them. Be direct but kind. As you are honest with them, they will learn the value of honesty in all their important relationships.
- Respect diversity. Take opportunities to learn together about other cultures, religions, political views and people. Help them become comfortable and familiar with different kinds of settings. When our children were growing up, we had neighbors who had immigrated from Spain, and we invited this family over to teach us about their country and customs. Creating opportunities to appreciate and value differences helped our children develop respectful behaviors toward people different than them.
- Build your child's self-worth. When people feel good about themselves, they are more likely to treat others with respect as well. Celebrate their achievements and catch them doing good things. Reinforce good behavior and, when needed, gently correct poor behavior. Your children's self-esteem is directly related to the respect they feel from others around them – particularly their parents.
- Communicate and demonstrate love. In a personal way, express your love to your children regularly. Hugs, kisses, playful wrestling, focused time, a well-deserved pat on the back - all are ways we can show love. Make sure that you communicate in your child's love language so they can really feel it. If their behavior needs correcting, do it quickly and then in short order communicate love. When they feel loved and accepted, they will respond with respect.
- Put yourself in their shoes. Empathy is an important component to developing respect. If you have an expectation that your son will not borrow something of yours without getting permission, offer him the same courtesy with his belongings. Try to remember what it was like when you were their age, and don't put them in embarrassing or difficult moments with their siblings or peers. A little common courtesy and abiding by the Golden Rule as it relates to your kids goes a long way.
Modeling respectful behavior, demonstrating love, concern, and focus, and showing empathy are all ways fathers can best teach about respect. As you work to do these things, your children will respond in kind, and your efforts will result in children who value respect toward others.