Respect is a verb – Help children put it into practice.

About the Author - Karen Stephens is director of Illinois State University Child Care Centre and instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department.

Helping children learn positive social skills, like the how’s and why’s of actions and reactions, the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and the knack of getting along with peers and adults, is some of the most teaching parents can do – the skill of maintaining self-respect while at the same time extending respect to others.

Respect is usually used as a noun, as in “I want your respect”, however, respect is most influential and valuable as a verb. Only when respect is energised into specific acts can it make a difference in someone’s life. To nourish a relationship of mutual regard and understanding, acts of respect must be sincere, heartfelt and well-intentioned. Authentic respect involves far more than superficial manners that children hurriedly spout off by rote just to appease an adults up raised eyebrow.     

An insincere “please,” “thank you,” or “sorry” rings hollow. It is easy to spot a child lying when apologising on command. That is not encouraging respect, it is teaching unthinking compliance. Children can say the “right words” with all the wrong connotation.

Commanding a child to apologise on cue will teach hypocrisy

Aloofness, even condescending impatience, reverberates when children jump the hoop after told to use the “magic word.”  The magic word is only magic when it is authentic. Genuine acts of respect ring a truer note by reaching a person’s heart. To develop respect for others, children must learn to consider and value others’ viewpoints as well as their own. Being able to take another’s perspective is a skill child gradually acquire. As brain development progresses, and children gain social experience through play and daily routines, they develop a remarkable capacity to consider other  peoples’ needs, wants, and desires.

We best teach manners by our own consistent example. Only if we practice what we preach can we be credible role models. Here’s a revealing example:

I was running errands with a four-year-old I will call Veronica. I quickly noticed shopkeepers greeting Veronica by name and at each shop she ended up in a friendly conversation. Her comfort with these people, and their pleasure in chatting with her was unmistakable. As we progressed, a pattern emerged. A shopkeeper looked up and said “hello” and Veronica would respond brightly “hello, how are you doing?” in an engaging, neighbourly manner.

Veronica had learned how to exchange greetings and she had learned how to be thoughtful and courteous by asking about others’ welfare. Her openness invited shopkeepers’ interest from which friendships bloomed. As a result, Veronica felt safe and accepted, and she came to trust that adults liked her and had her best interests at heart, a luxury for many children today.

How did this four-year-old develop such polite social skills? A few days later, I ran into her Grandmother downtown as we both walked into the same store. As we entered, the first thing Grandma did was call out to the shopkeeper, "hello, how are you doing?" She had the exact neighbourly inflection as Veronica.

Yes, a socially skilled elder had shown the mannerly way by example. This helped Veronica participate more fully in her community and her good manners did not go unnoticed. Respectful behaviour is rarely taken for granted, especially in children.

Whenever children are helped by someone, coach them in politeness. Remind them that people feel appreciated when thanked, whether with gestures or gifts. Social graces also take root when children thank people who have been kind to them.

Reinforcement and encouragement are valuable teaching tools

Home celebrations for relatives or friends provide teachable moments for manners, too. Children can easily learn to be gracious hosts by welcoming them in and asking them if they would like something to drink.

The routine of meals together around a table provides many opportunities for children to practice social graces. Mealtimes together strengthen family relationships and develop manners children will put to good use when dining at a restaurant or at a friend’s house.

Of course, teaching basic table manners is an ongoing experience at meals. Calmly remind children that you will listen when they don’t have food in their mouths. If your child points and grunts at food, matter-of-factly say, “please tell me what you would like and I'll pass it.”  If a child demands peas by yelling, candidly reply you are more eager to help when asked to pass food in a courteous voice.

Reinforcement and encouragement are valuable teaching tools. When a child is mannerly, comment on the specific behaviour you want to encourage. When your child gives a helping hand, compliment their cooperation: “How courteous of you to hold the door open when I bring in groceries. Thanks, hon.”

When children help with household chores, such as helping with dinner, acknowledge their contribution. Express your appreciation when your child waits patiently after you’ve asked them not to interrupt a conversation.

Through these everyday experiences, children will gradually learn respectful manners and many other wonderful traits will surface as well such as: kindness, helpfulness, patience, cooperation, thoughtfulness, politeness, consideration, honesty, altruism, graciousness, compassion, empathy, and gentleness. Together they’ll combine to give your child the skills necessary to participate more easily in family life and the life of the larger community.