There’s a fine line between teaching our children to respect authority while still instilling in them a healthy curiosity that allows them to question what they are being told. It’s not easy. And too much in any one direction can be problematic. But the truth is, the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Beyond helping kids understand the basic order of their lives and giving parents the infrastructure to run the household, teaching the proper respect to authority helps instill other important qualities in kids, including humility, accountability and personal responsibility. At the same time, it’s healthy for kids to question things they see in the world, including some things that come from adults and other authority figures, so long as they are done in the correct manner.
Be the role model your children deserve
While there are many avenues a parent can take when teaching your kids to respect authority, it must start with the example they set. If they see you doing certain things that undermine authority, it could work against the underlying lesson you are trying to get across.
If, for example, they notice you breaking traffic laws, talking down to others or even bad-mouthing people behind their back, they won’t understand that respecting authority is as much about treating others well as anything.
Start with the Golden Rule
In order for society to function well and for individuals in that society to get along, there needs to be a baseline of respect between individuals. That might be too high a concept for young children to grasp, so ease them into it by explaining the Golden Rule – treat others as you would like them to treat you. This is a simple starting point for even the youngest children to grasp the concept of respect.
A good way to show children how this works is precisely when they aren’t doing it themselves. All parents will face situations when their children act and are rude. Helping them understand the consequences of those actions doesn’t only mean punishment and disciplinary tactics. It’s important for them to understand that their actions affect how others, including the parents themselves, feel. Explaining to them that what they say and do to others has consequences is a building block for empathy and gives them a richer understanding of why respect is important.
Be stern without humiliation
It would be great for children to understand the importance of respect authority early on, but chances are it will take some time or them to grasp it. That’s okay. However, even before they necessarily understand why they should be respectful, they need to act respectful.
In order for that to happen, parents must be consistent with how they deal with children when they are not respectful. Every time a child is disrespectful, there must be consequences. Children will act out, that is a fact of life. How parents deal with a child throwing a tantrum at a department store, being rude to waiters or refusing to say “hello” or “goodbye” to grandparents makes all the difference in the lessons we teach.
It is important for parents to keep their cool even in trying circumstances and to be as patient as possible. After all, we are trying to help our children understand why it is important to act respectfully, so yelling or humiliating them in public is most likely counterproductive to raising respectful children into respectful adults.
Set expectations on what it means to be respectful
Whenever possible, talk to your children and let them know that disrespectful actions will result in negative consequences. Talking away a toy, not letting them watch a show or even having them miss out on dessert are common ways to apply consequences that they will not want repeated. Parents know their children best, so they should know what buttons to push and how to escalate the punishments after repeated instances of disrespect.
It won’t be easy, but parents have the upper hand and should remember to dole out discipline sparingly and do their best not to let their own anger dictate punishment. It’s easier said than done, but teaching children to be respectful is a process and no one particularly disrespectful act is representative of how a child will grow up, and parents would do well to keep that in mind.
Communicate the good as well as the bad
For children to act respectfully, they have to know what that means. Parents should be clear about their expectations beforehand and what their culture views as respectful behavior. This will give even shy or mischievous kids a chance to know what’s coming. And as important as it is to hold them accountable when they don’t act respectfully, it is equally prudent to encourage them when they are.
It’s also important to help children understand the difference between questioning things and being disrespectful, which many adults even have a hard time differentiating. These are boundaries that are often confusing, but school-age children should pick up on the differences by interactions with teachers and other authority figures.
Parents must help children learn and develop their instincts for when there may be an issue with something adults and other authority figures say. Respect does not necessarily mean to follow blindly and parents can help grow their children's confidence by asking for and valuing their opinions. This can be done by simply letting them make certain choices on what music to listen to in the car, what healthy snacks they prefer and other simple decisions. This let’s children feel the positive aspect of respect and builds their self-confidence, which in turn helps them trust their instincts when something might be off, even when coming from an adult.
Teaching our children to be respectful can be a long process, but with patience and communication, parents can help raise well-mannered, responsible and respectful children who are confident and curious.