Aretha sang about it. Erasure asked for a little of it. Vito Corleone demanded it. And all of us want our children to have it. Respect, that’s it. We teach them their Ps and Qs as soon as they can speak. Remind them to greet their elders when they meet, and hold their tongues instead of talking back. Even then, there will be a time when we want to twist their ears and admonish them to “show some respect or else!” Won’t they ever learn? Or are they just unaware?
More likely the latter, reckons Mr Chua Sze Siong. “The child might not know that they are not being respectful,” the chief therapist at Mindfulbear, who has worked with children for 11 years, tells us.
He recalls a boy he counselled, who ran away from PE lessons. “Everyone thought that he was being disrespectful to his PE teacher. When I asked him why, he said that his PE teacher was trying to teach them a skill, but that he ran away because he was worried that others would laugh at him.”
The child was not being disrespectful. He was in flight or fight mode due to an emotional response – anxiety, Mr Chua explains.
“Children’s brains need time to develop moral reasoning. It is a socio-cognitive skill essential to appropriate social functioning in childhood.”
So while their brains are doing so, how can we teach our children to be respectful? Mr Chua shares some insights below.
What does it mean when a child is disrespectful?
“We often hear from parents that their child is rude and disrespectful. When children are not exhibiting their parents’ desirable or expected behaviour, it comes across as disrespectful. But this might not be the child’s intention. There is always an underlying reason on why a child behaves in a certain manner.
For example, when a child feels ashamed and worried that their sibling will laugh at him, he may choose to run away and refuse to listen to any instructions from his parents.
Or in the earlier example, when the child ran away during PE lessons. This seems like disrespectful behaviour, but the child might be experiencing a mini-meltdown because he is worried that he cannot learn the skill being taught, and will look like a fool during the lesson.
What should we do when a child behaves that way?
The best way is not to respond immediately, especially when we are feeling emotional. There is a time and place for everything.
Speak to the child one-to-one in a safe space. For example, during evening walks, in the car, or any other time when the child is most willing to listen. Then get the child to practice and make adjustments on what is acceptable and unacceptable.
The next time you encounter a similar situation or scenario, remind the child of the discussion you had the last time. The key is to remind them to try: try to practice respectful behaviour this time.
How can parents teach their children to be respectful?
It is not hard to teach respect, you just need to be intentional.
For children 2-4 years old – teach respect based on people in general
- Everyone is unique and valuable. No one is the same. We are all different.
Celebrate differences. One fun and easy way is to bring children to the zoo. Let them see how the animals are all different. Some are tall, some are short, yet all are unique in their own way.
2. Respect starts by drawing/writing it down. Start a daily journal and ask:
- 3 good things you did today?
- 2 respectful behaviours you showed today?
- 1 thing that you are happy about today?
3. Bedtime stories with elements of respect are also a great resource.
For children between 5-10 years old – teach respect based on geographical locations
- Respect at home – what the child can do to show respect at home. For instance:
- Greet my parents every morning
- Speak politely to my siblings
- Ask before taking
How do you want others to show you respect in your home?
- Respect at school – what a child can do to show respect in school. For example:
- Greet my teachers when I see them
- Speak politely to my peers
- Ask before taking others’ belonging
How do you want others to show you respect at school?
For children 10 years old and above – teach individual respect
- I respect myself. How do I respect myself?
- Ask the child to share about things they value or are proud of or good at.
- How do I want others to respect me?
2. Respect during puberty. As children grow older, prepare them for puberty and the physical changes that it brings. Start by sharing with them the need to respect themselves:
- It is my body and I respect it enough to take care of it
- I will eat what is good for my body
3. Respect for others and myself during conflict. As children grow older, prepare them to analyse and think from others’ perspective. Say someone called the child “stupid”.
- How can we manage conflict with respect?
- Validating the emotions that I feel when others called me stupid.
- Understanding from others’ perspectives when they called me stupid.
- If the person had enough self-respect, would he/she say I am stupid?
These are some ways in which parents can teach or equip their children with the skills of being respectful.
Give children space to learn
When children do not learn how to show respect, it impacts their ability to empathise with others, and impairs their ability to show care and concern for others.
Being respectful is an ability to think about others’ thoughts, intentions, feelings, attitudes, that lead to us behaving respectfully. It takes time and skill to develop — something which a child might not be able to do at a young age.
But respect is a muscle that every child has. Give the child enough practice, and he or she will be able to show respect.
As parents, we simply need to be intentional when we want to teach children about respect.”
Mr Chua Sze Siong is the chief therapist at Mindfulbear, which offers specialist counselling for children and teens. The father of a daughter has worked with children for 11 years as an educator, and as a certified MOE school counsellor.