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Being a parent is a challenging and often thankless job. You pour out your heart and your soul just to take good care of your kids and provide them with the love and care they need.

Is it too much to ask that they show some common respect?

The Respect Lightbulb Moment

I often hear from parents who ask about how to teach their children to respect them. But when I sat down to write an article in response to that question, I had a bit of a lightbulb moment!

I was thinking back over incidents in my own parenting journey when my kids have done or said something I would consider disrespectful. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that 99% of the time when a child treats a parent with disrespect, what they are missing is simply a general application of the respect we all owe to each other as people made in God’s image.

In other words, we can almost always address the issue without needing to place it in the context of parent/child dynamics, or an authority structure. We can simply speak about what respect should look like in all relationships. In just a minute, I’ll get into some specifics and I think you’ll see what I mean.

As I thought more about this curious observation, it also occurred to me that if most of the instances of disrespect were just general violations of our call to treat others with dignity, then each expression of respect that I expect from my children is also something that they should be able to expect from me in some way.

Why Not Remove Any Roadblocks to Learning Respect?

If what our children most need is general instruction in godly, loving human respect and dignity, then it might not be as necessary as we think to make corrections or arguments on the basis of the “I’m the parent! You’re the child!” reasoning that we are often tempted to depend on in the heat of the moment.

If we want to graciously and effectively coach our children in the areas where they need guidance and correction, then it’s wise to remove any unnecessary obstacles to their ability to see and acknowledge where they need to grow.

And taking our children’s disrespect personally, standing on our rights, or demanding what we deserve can definitely be such an obstacle to a careful conversation about behavior.

A Respect Challenge

So I'd like to propose a challenge.

The next time your child says or does something disrespectful that you need to address, instead of saying,

That’s not how you speak to me” or

That isn’t the way a child should talk to her mother” or

I’m your parent and you need to respect me” 

Ask yourself if you can remove the authority dynamic from the conversation all together and just address the need for decency and respect from person to person. I'd love to hear what you discover!

Now, let's dig into some specifics so you'll have a better understanding of what I'm talking about!

What is Respect?

So what is respect? Most dictionaries define respect in two basic ways.

One is a generic regard shown to everyone. Think about the phrase “please respect the family’s privacy at this time”. This type of respect doesn’t have anything to do with your opinion or esteem of a person, but rather refers to decent behavior between people.

The other type of respect is more like admiration or honor - an appreciation for someone’s character or skill based on their merits and your experience of them. For example, "I respect that professor's teaching," or "I respect his athletic ability."

In general, I think it is our responsibility to instruct our children in the first type of respect, not the second.

Admiration, honor, trust, and appreciation are a response to another’s behavior. Not something we are required to cultivate or exhibit. However, general respect and decency towards other image-bearers is an area where we can provide guidance and instruction.

The verse I think that captures what it looks like to respect others as fellow image-bearers of our creator God is from Philippians chapter 2.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus. (Php 2:3-5)

Now, on to the specifics I promised. Here are six different ways we can teach our children to respect others, and model what that looks like by respecting them in these areas also.

Respect Acknowledges and Responds

This is pretty basic, but when someone speaks to you, you demonstrate respect by acknowledging them and responding to what was said.

It can be aggravating when we call a child and that child ignores us. But responding to someone who speaks to us is a courtesy owed to all people, not just those in authority over us.

Instead of standing on your rights as a parent, offer general instruction. “When someone calls you, the kind thing to do is respond right away so that the person knows you heard him and he doesn’t have to call again.”

But let’s also consider some ways in which you, as a parent, can demonstrate respect in this area.

Do you respond - quickly and kindly - when your child calls your name? What if you’re busy doing something else when they call? Do you at least acknowledge with “Just a minute” or “Be there as soon as I finish this!”

Do you do what you can to ensure your child knows when you call him? Go to the room where he is, put a hand on his shoulder, make eye contact? These are all gestures of respect and courtesy as well!

Respect Doesn't Blame-Dump

Another common experience of disrespect might occur when you ask a child to do something, or need to say no to a request.

When we feel intense emotion, it’s natural to want to find some way to release that emotional energy and get relief. Sometimes we’re tempted to do that by blaming someone who is connected to (though not responsible for) our uncomfortable circumstances.

For example, if you remind your child to do her math and she’s feeling a lot of frustration and discouragement about that math, she might respond in a disrespectful way by acting as if you are to blame for the emotions she is feeling because you are the one who reminded her she has math to do.

It’s easy to jump right to correcting her for speaking disrespectfully to a parent, but that doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter. What she needs, instead, is ongoing guidance in and practice at looking under the surface to identify the emotions she’s experiencing in situations like this, and training in healthy ways to process and respond to those feelings.

It’s also important to pay attention to ways we might be blame-dumping on our children. Shoes left by the door one day might be no big deal. Shoes left by the door when we’re tired and stressed about our responsibilities might seem like an egregious offense.

Ask yourself, “Am I responding in love to address a problem, or am I dumping my emotions on someone conveniently nearby?”

If you realize you’ve done this yourself, this is a great time to talk to your kids about it and model what was happening in your own mind, how you handled it wrongly, and what it would look like to make a better decision the next time.

Respect Takes Correction

One way to show that we truly care for someone else is that we are willing to hear anything they might have against us, especially if it is a way in which our behavior has hurt that person specifically.

Nobody likes to be wrong. It’s never fun to be corrected. But being willing to hear the concern shows that we value the other person. It’s a clear way of looking not only to our own interests, but also to the interests of others.

It’s worth discussing healthy ways to give correction (more on that in a moment) but it’s also important to teach and model the humility needed to hear the correction, even if it isn’t delivered in the perfect way.

Age and maturity certainly play a role in a child’s readiness and ability to offer valid criticism. But even if the criticism isn’t valid, we don’t want to communicate that children are not allowed to communicate that they didn’t like something a parent or other caretaker did.

We need to practice responding specifically to the correction, rather than blame-shifting or denying that there is any place for a child to offer criticism.

For example, if you accidentally pinch a child while buckling him into a car seat and he yells, “Oww!! You hurt me!” Resist the urge to say, “Well, if you had been sitting still …” or even “You don’t speak to me that way!” but instead, hear the concern, acknowledge the need for it to be spoken, and apologize for the hurt, even if accidental.

If you want further help teaching your kids about offering and receiving correction wisely, check out Volume 4 of the Sibling Investigations Devotional "The Fellowship of Correction".

Respect Speaks Carefully

Oftentimes when we think about children speaking disrespectfully, what comes to mind is basic rudeness - hurtful, spiteful words.

The book of James says that with our tongue “we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (Jas 3:9-10)

We can speak rude words, seeking to hurt those we love most in order to get our own way or avoid taking responsibility for our own actions. Teaching our children to choose their words carefully is a life-long learning process and an area of personal growth that continues on through adulthood.

Some things to explain to our children and consider in our own words.

Be Specific

Address the problem specifically; don’t make general accusations about a person’s whole character.

For example, instead of saying, “You’re such a drama queen!” talk carefully about the particular issue at hand.

Avoid Exaggeration

Avoid hyperbole. Instead of saying, “You always …” or “You never …” or exaggerating the aspects of a situation, speak carefully and accurately about the problem.

Avoid Inflammatory Words

It doesn’t actually take her “forever” to get ready in the morning, and she doesn’t actually use “gallons” of shampoo each shower.

Avoid inflammatory words. Instead of talking about the “disaster” in his bedroom, remind him that it needs straightening. Instead of saying a bad habit is “disgusting” or “gross” talk about why it isn’t healthy.

Smoothing or Ruffling?

One great way to illustrate this for kids is with a feather.

Show them how pinching the feather and sliding your fingers in one direction causes the vanes of the feather to separate and become jumbled and disorganized, while sliding your fingers in the other direction causes the vanes to become smooth and sealed.

With this illustration in mind, you can ask them (and yourself) “Are your words smoothing or ruffling?”

Respect Honors Effort

There’s nothing quite like going to the trouble of making a nice dinner or planning a special day for your family only to have the kids complain. As humans, we want our effort to be appreciated, even if the outcome isn’t what someone else would have preferred.

We can coach our kids in thoughtful practices like expressing gratitude for time and energy spent and waiting for the right time and place to share criticism or request changes.

We can extend this same respect to our children. When we ask them to do a task, like fold and put away their laundry, or wipe down the table, do we honor their effort, or only mention what they did wrong or what we wish they had done better?

In fact, sometimes, a great way to honor effort is to offer correction while completing the extra touches yourself!

For example, say, “Great job! Thank you!” Then, pick up the rag and demonstrate as you say, “One thing I like to do is lean down to see the table at a different angle so I can see the sticky spots!” and then, as you talk, wipe those spots!

Respect Honors Responsibility

Finally, another frequent way in which we might experience disrespect from our children has to do with a failure on their part to acknowledge our responsibilities.

Imagine that you’re getting ready to go on family vacation. You have an ever-growing to-do list in your head and you’ve ask each of your children to do something specific, “Find your shoes. Put your pillow in the car. Get your phone charger”. And you’ve asked them to report back to you.

If a child doesn’t come back to help, but instead, when you find her hanging out in her bedroom says, “What?? I didn’t think there was anything else that needed to be done!” it’s normal to feel disrespected because she doesn’t understand or appreciate the weight of responsibility you are carrying.

She doesn’t have the job of managing the whole process, just a few individual tasks. So, respecting you as the one bearing the mental load of preparation would involve deferring to you as to whether there is more work that needs to be done.

In fact, respecting the responsibility someone else carries covers a great deal of what it means to obey in a parent child relationship.

Parents have the responsibility to keep their children safe. And so, when dad says “Do not touch the stove” or mom says, “Hold my hand in the parking lot” he or she is asking you to do what is needed to meet that responsibility.

Parents also have a responsibility to provide for the needs of their children. Asking kids to put their dirty clothes in the hamper or to bring their plates to the sink after a meal are ways that children can respect the responsibility for their welfare that parents carry.

In fact, I think the slice of respect that is specific to a relationship of authority is well-described in this verse.

Obey your leaders and submit to them, since they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)

Parents are responsible to God for the care - physical, emotional, spiritual - that they provide to their children. One way that children respect their parents is by respecting the weight and importance of that God-given authority.

We can guide and coach our children in what it looks like to follow instructions in a way that allows us to parent them with joy and not grief for their own benefit - so that we will have energy and time to care well for them.

And of course, children have responsibilities, too! We can show our respect for their responsibilities in many ways.

If you expect your children to keep their rooms tidy, do you provide them with the type and amount of storage necessary to do that without unnecessary struggle?

teen bible journaling in devotional for kids with bible verses

If you expect them to keep up with their school assignments, do you give them sufficient notice about family events or other schedule items that might limit their time to study? Do you provide a quite space with minimal distractions where they can complete their work?

Final Thoughts on Respect

After hearing some of those examples of what respect (and disrespect) look like, I’d love to hear what you think. Would you agree that most instances of disrespect would be disrespectful no matter the recipient? That the framework of child/parent isn’t usually essential to explain why something was disrespectful?

While there certainly is a place for talking about the way we address someone in authority, as compared to a peer or someone under our care, it’s important that this be just a small slice of the discussion.

Two Dangers of Overemphasizing Authority as Necessary for Respect

If we primarily emphasize respect as something that is relevant in relationship to someone in authority, we run the risk of opening our children up to two dangers:

  1. First, they may connect their need for respect from others with a need to control or have authority over others, since they have been trained to think that respect is only deserved from someone under your authority.
  2. And second, they may fail to understand the importance of respecting all people as made in the image of God and treating them with dignity, regardless of rank or position. In fact, given the first problem above, they may even view treating peers or subordinates with respect as an abdication of their own authority and dignity.

What ways have you found helpful to talk with your children about respect? Do you think you could address most instances of disrespect apart from the parent/child authority dynamic?

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Lynna Sutherland is the mother of eight kids ages teen to toddler. She hosts the Sibling Relationship Lab podcast and writes about sibling conflict resolution and sibling relationship building. Lynna believes that the gospel transforms sibling conflict from an obstacle to an opportunity and loves to show other parents the freedom and confidence of gospel-centered parenting.