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As you struggle trying to raise a respectful child, keep in mind that respect for oneself and others is the foundation on which a healthy and successful life is built. With all we do for our kids, and I’m no exception, it can leave them feeling entitled, rather than respectful.

There are a number of things you can do as a parent to help your kids to develop a more respectful way of interacting with people. The following are some ways to teach your child respect, especially with members of the opposite sex, an arena that becomes increasingly important when your child enters adolescence.

As a parent, you can play a vital role in teaching respect for people of differing beliefs, one child at a time. Working to raise a respectful kid will mean standing your ground and not backing down when you feel your child is being disrespectful, or saying disrespectful things. When both parents are tired from spending a full day at work, teachable moments can feel exhausting. 

Take a breath and remember you are a vital part in building the respectful society we all want to live in. 

It begins early

Parents whether meaning to or not, begin treating boys and girls differently from the time of infancy. Girls are encouraged to be more passive and thoughtful, whereas boys get away, and are even encouraged to be aggressive. The statement ‘boys will be boys’ highlights the society’s acceptance of aggressive or destructive behaviors in boys but not in girls. This bias even extends to the toys girls and boys are given—while boys are given construction equipment and cars, girls are given dolls and stuffed animals to play with. Even in pretend-play games, often little boys are encouraged to roughhouse while girls are prompted to play the roles of princesses waiting for their princes. Children observe these differences early, internalizing that there are socially acceptable ways for them to conform to traditional gender-specific roles.

It starts with us

We are the first model of respect (or the lack of it) that our children have.

Parents teach children more through their actions and behaviors than through their words. Children form ideas by observing important adults around them. The way parents speak to each other and the roles they play at home will significantly influences the attitudes and behaviors of children.  If a boy consistently observes his father treating his mother disrespectfully, he is likely to believe that such behavior is acceptable and will think that is applicable to all females. He will most likely treat girlfriends in adolescence similarly.

To change children’s perceptions we need to first look at our own attitudes and behavior and also that of other adults who regularly spend time with our children. It is important that the adults show equal respect towards roles of all individuals in the house.

Watch how you speak

If we often tell a little girl that she looks beautiful, she may begin to focus excessively on improving her looks and draw her sense of self-worth from her physical appearance. Especially around puberty, girls are sensitive towards both positive and negative reinforcements about their appearance. Additionally, if we discourage young boys from displaying their emotions by saying things like “boys don’t cry” it may adversely impact their emotional health. Consider whether you only give your children gender specific compliments or statements.

Monitor the media

Media reinforce gender stereotypes that are already prevalent in the society. Most popular fairy tales reinforce the perception that a ‘princess is always rescued by or waiting for her ‘knight in the shining armor’. Similarly, comic books, movies and video games tend to focus on men as always strong and courageous beings. We can’t completely prevent such content from influencing children; we can however help them process these messages the right way through discussion or play. Monitoring what our children read or watch can help them understand and not conform to rigid gender stereotypes.

Teach what you want to be

Open the avenues for exploration despite gender.  Realize that some aspects of this perspective may be outside of your own comfort zone and may not be what you have experienced; change the patterns from what you know to what you want to see.  Parents should refrain from placing gender-based expectations on children and instead encourage boys and girls to explore their interests and all possible career options.

Have standards and consequences

Your child should know which behaviors are and are not acceptable, both when they are with you and outside of the home. Hold them to that standard. When your child becomes disrespectful or misbehaves, address the behavior and use corrective action. Decide based on what you think will work for your child individually. They should know that whenever they behave or speak disrespectfully, it will be dealt with, and not ignored.

The consequences of respect become magnified when a child reaches adolescence with its emerging sexuality and dating. Teaching that respect is a two-way street will make the difficult adolescent years somewhat easier, and hopefully more angst free.

Teach empathy

Respect for people is a necessary component of every relationship, whether it is between siblings, a parent and child, or when adolescents begin more intimate relationships with the opposite sex. Talk about how it might feel in certain situations by role playing with your children.  Teach empathy by having conversations with your children about how certain behaviors make them feel, and then asking them to try to understand how this might make others feel.

Expect respect in your home between all family members. Correct adolescents when they are rude act or speak disrespectfully.  Kids will usually interact outside the home with others the way they interact inside the home with the family!

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