Teaching our children respect for others starts with teaching them respect for us, and this can be done without sacrificing our children’s individuality or personal development. First, we have to believe in the importance of our role as parents, and not defer our responsibility to anyone else.
Last year, while visiting the JFK Library in Boston, I appreciated the way he defined his responsibility as a parent:
“I think when we talk about corporal punishment, and we have to think about our own children…it seems to me, to have other people administering punishment to our own children…puts a special obligation on us to maintain order and to send children out from our homes who accept the idea of discipline. So I would not be for corporal punishment in the school, but I would be for very strong discipline at home so we don’t place an unfair burden on our teachers.”
The prevailing attitude with regard to the role of teachers and the responsibility of parents was that the welfare of the entire class outweighed the problems of any single student.
Although children still need discipline, recent generations have seen the parenting pendulum swing from valuing the collective toward valuing the individual. Today, when a child disturbs a classroom full of children, the focus is on determining why that child is having a problem (or even on whether or not the teacher is doing a good job) rather than on the disruption created for all the other students. The good of the group seems to be less important. Unfortunately, in many cases, parents side with the child and let their concern (or defensiveness) outweigh the fact that their child is disturbing the entire class.
So, who’s going to teach your child the rules? How can we make our kids responsible members of society? How can we teach them to have concern for others in a world where role models include ego maniacs, bad sports, porn stars, drug users, or social freaks? When celebrity is defined as success, and morality seems to be a moving target how do we teach our children to have high expectations of themselves and to respect others?
My parents raised me to believe that, under most circumstances, they had life pretty figured out. I was taught to respect their knowledge because it seemed to work for them. They were hard-working, seemingly well-liked, and respected members of the community. I wanted to be like them. I suspect that most little children want to be like their parents.
How did you learn to navigate the world? Who taught you to say “please” and “thank you”? Did anyone ever encourage you to give your seat up to an older person or to hold a door open out of courtesy? Who taught you how to listen? I’m guessing your parents did – and now it’s your job. Here’s why:
- Learning to keep quiet means “I am not the most important person in the world, and that I need to be sensitive to others.”
- Learning to say “please” and “thank you” teaches our children that courtesy is important.
- Giving up one’s seat is a measure of courtesy and a lesson in anticipating that the feelings or needs of other (and older) people are important.
- Clearing our table at a fast food restaurant teaches our children that the people who will need the table next are worthy of consideration.
- Putting the shopping cart back at the market is a great job for an eight- year-old.
All of us are capable of modeling these behaviors for our children. Kids are keenly aware of how we, as their parents, treat those around us – and how those people treat us! Developing relationships with local food servers, grocery store checkers, bank tellers, and other members of the community creates a template of belonging for our children.
To teach respect we must show respect for ourselves. It’s not easy to live an exemplary life, but that’s exactly what being a parent requires. None of us is perfect, but every day we each have little opportunities to show our children the high road. Our children need to know that we have expectations of ourselves, and that those same expectations apply to them. The fact is, children love being able to meet our expectations. It lets them know where they stand.
Sometimes it’s hard to break the habits we’ve formed as adults. I had to clean up my language for a number of years. I had to cross at crosswalks. I tried not to yell at other drivers… you get the idea. During the time in which our children are most impressionable and their moral and emotional scaffolding is being built, we have to be conscious of the lessons we’re teaching them.
Believe in your knowledge, and through your actions create the moral universe in which you want your children to live.
In this way, your child will become your contribution to a better world.