How to Raise Respectful Children
Me to Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, six blink-of-an-eye years ago: “So I think it’s time to start dealing with our oldest child. Ever since she turned three, she’s been testing me. She thinks she’s Head Woman of the house, not me. She argues with every little thing I say, down to me telling her she’s got blood gushing out of her nose, and she’s like, No I don’t. And I’m so tired and pulled in so many directions with the other two babies, I could really use your help dealing with her.”
Kevin: “What are you talking about? Not my sweet angel darling princess Miracle Baby Cassidy! She’s perfect!”
Me, to myself, hoping God was listening in: “Oh, help us, God. Help help help help help.”
A few days later . . .
Kevin takes Cassidy to TJ Maxx to enjoy a little father-daughter alone-time-while-running-errands and to give me a “break.” (Okay, but does it count as a break when you’re home with a twenty-one-month-old and a three-week-old?! Anyway.) Kevin says, “Okay, Cassidy, it’s time to leave.”
Cassidy flashes a coy smile and runs away.
Kevin calls after her, half-laughing and trying to keep things low-key since the other “Maxxinistas” are already casting raised eyebrows in his direction: “Cassidy, Honey, it’s time to go. That’s not funny.” He gives the other customers his signature rueful but charming “kids-do-the-darnedest-things” smile.
Cassidy’s little dark head disappears behind a rack of clothes.
Kevin breaks into a slow jog. “Cassidy!” he calls, a little louder now. More heads turn. Whispers spread.
Kevin rounds the corner, just in time to see dark curls booking it toward the juniors’ department. He breaks into a full-out sprint.
He chases his little cherub for at least two laps around TJ Maxx before finally capturing her and using his quarterback skills to lock her in an inescapable football hold. He takes her to the van for what we in the South like to call a “Come to Jesus” talk.
An hour later, the side door of our house bangs open. In huffs a red-faced Kevin and a teary-eyed but still feisty Cassidy. They disappear into her room.
Cassidy’s reign as “sweet angel darling princess Miracle Baby” has come to a shrieking halt. (Literally.) I cry tears of relief into the baby’s burp cloth.
And that was the day when Kevin and I joined forces to start teaching respect to our children.
(For more funny stories about my parenting adventures alongside Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, bookmark “On Pink Eye, Lice, and Love.”)
But disrespect takes a million different forms. It isn’t always as obvious as a newly minted three-year-old defying you and giving you a department-by-department tour of TJ Maxx. What about these scenarios . . .
Mom to kid: “Turn off the TV and go get ready for bed.”
Kid, staring with vacant eyes at the television: “No. Not till my show’s over.”
Dad to kid: “Hey, did you know that Jordan Spieth just tied Tiger Woods’ record at the Masters, and they were both the same age?”
Kid to dad, a challenge in their voice: “Oh yeah? How do you know?”
Mom to kid: “It’s time to leave the playground. Say good-bye to your friends.”
Kid: Ignores mom and runs toward the slide again.
Mom: Rolls eyes at friend and sighs with a half-smile.
Kid goes down slide three more times. Mom chats some more.
Mom, six minutes later: “Okay, it’s really time to go now.”
Kid: Runs off to the swings at the other side of the playground.
Mom turns pink and starts to get mad. To friend, she says, “I’ll be back.” Marches over to child, who is happily swinging.
Mom: “I said it’s time to go now. Please get off the swings and say good-bye.”
Kid, emboldened now: “No.”
Mom looks around to see if the other moms are watching them. (They might be, but they’re pretending not to.)
Mom, trying to justify her command to herself as much as to her child: “Look, I already let you have extra time on the slide, and now it really is time to go because you need to eat lunch before nap time. If you don’t take a nap you’ll be really tired and grumpy the rest of the day, Sweetie. So come on, let’s go.”
Kid, in a sing-song voice, cheerfully swinging higher: “No-no-nooo!”
Mom: “You’re going to be really tired if you don’t get your nap.”
Kid, shouting: “No nap! I don’t want a nap!”
Mom, trying to figure out how to get kid off the swings safely without being arrested for child abuse: “All right. I’m counting to three.”
Kid: “No! Don’t count to three!”
Kid slows for a moment, but keeps swinging. “Noooooo!”
Kid pumps legs harder and shouts louder. “Nooooo Mommyyyyyyy!”
Mom and kid stare at each other when the kid swings down to her eye level, because neither of them is really sure what’s supposed to happen when Mom gets to three.
Kid keeps swinging. Mom tries not to cry.
Sound familiar at all?
All of these scenarios have the same core issue in common: disrespect.
What God Says about Teaching Respect to Children
God calls children to respect their parents—actually, he uses an even more weighted word, honor: “Children, honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). Yep, it’s one of the Big Ten (the Ten Commandments). When kids are respectful to their parents, life goes well for them. Their home life is happy. Their parents are happy. The kids earn respect in return, and get to enjoy a fair amount of freedom. But when kids are disrespectful . . . look out. Not only are they in for an unhappy life of continual conflict at home, but chances are, they’re having a tough time getting along with every other authority in their life, too: grandparents, babysitters, teachers, coaches, friends’ parents, piano teachers, Scout leaders, mailmen . . .
Children must learn respect at an early age.
Kevin and I learned this the hard way with our oldest. The sooner you start, the better. (Yep, we’re talking older toddlers here.) The longer we let kids test our boundaries, walk all over us, and even ignore our instructions, the worse things get. The longer we let them charm their way out of, or work around, or argue with, or flatly defy our rules . . . the worse things get.
Children must learn respect at the heart level.
At first, young children just need to learn to obey. Period. They don’t need to understand why. (What two-year-old really understands why they need to take a nap? Or why they can’t eat candy all day long? What three-year-old really understands why they have to put on clean underwear after a bath?)
But as time goes on, we need to teach them to obey with a respectful attitude. Now THAT’S tricky. THAT’S real, wimps-need-not-apply parenting.
Bad-attitude obedience is not respect.
Whining obedience is not respect. (To read more about teaching whiny children, click here.)
Slow obedience is not respect.
Begrudging obedience is not respect.
Dragging-your-feet-across-the-room-while-moaning “obedience” is not respect.
Stomping-your-feet-while-wailing “obedience” is not respect.
“Honor your parents” means kids need to acknowledge their parents’ authority. It means kids need to admit and embrace the fact that the parents know more than they do. It means kids need to accept their parents’ right and responsibility to lead them. Okay but seriously—let’s talk about this for a minute, especially when we’re dealing with smart kids.
When your kid thinks they’re smarter than you
Intelligent kids are fun to raise, but they can present a challenge when they get cocky. Because in their deepest hearts, they think they are smarter than us. They think they know more than us. They think our rules are dumb. They think they should be allowed to make the rules for the family. And if we don’t show them otherwise by confident, clear, decisive parenting, they will never change their mind. We will never prove them wrong. (And they probably think this about their teachers and other adults, too.) Here are a few strategies to try:
Help smart children to have “a sober estimate” of themselves. They may be intelligent, and that’s great, but they still have a lot to learn! If they don’t embrace learning with a humble spirit, they will never be as smart as they could be. As the Bible says in Romans 12:3, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.”
Remind them where their intelligence comes from (God!), and that he didn’t give it to them so they could look down on other people. He gave it to them so they could use it to make God happy and help other people.
Help them to appreciate and admire other people’s gifts and strengths.
Be confident when you parent an intelligent child. Don’t let them intimidate you. They may be smart, but they are just a child. They do NOT know what is best, and they do NOT know more than you.
Children must re-learn what respect looks and sounds like, at different ages.
And we parents must re-learn how to parent at different ages too! We can’t treat a nine-year-old the same way we treat a three-year-old; we can’t treat a fifteen-year-old the same way we treat a nine-year-old! We have to adjust as our children enter new stages.
For example, I have noticed that four-, five-, and six-year-old boys periodically go through Obnoxious Show-Off Phases in which they decide they are the Smartest Person in the World, and their parents (particularly their mother) are the Dumbest People in the World. You have to teach respect to boys at this age all over again. Basically, boys at this age need to be humbled, big time, through conversations like this:
Mom: “Who’s the parent here?”
Kid: “You and Dad.”
Mom: “Who did God put in charge of this family?”
Kid: “You and Dad.”
Mom: “Who is the little boy who doesn’t know how to drive a car or keep a job or pay bills?”
“That’s right. So God expects you to listen to me and honor my rules.”
(You get the idea.)
We do not need to insult or criticize or be sarcastic with our children, but sometimes we do need to remind them of their place in life.
And we will all have scores of conversations just like this, in different ways, at all the different ages and stages. Because respect is one of those things kids tend to forget. As the Bible so wisely puts it, “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away” (Proverbs 22:15). Kids grow proud and foolish very quickly: A birthday goes to their head. A soccer victory goes to their head. An all-A report card goes to their head. All over again, we have to remind them of their place in this world before God, and in our family.
Five simple ways to teach children to be respectful:
1. Win the early battles.
Show your kid who is boss, beginning when they are older toddlers (think fifteen to eighteen months here, and kick into a more intense gear at age two). Don’t be fooled by that toothless grin—toddlers understand you when you say “no.” Don’t blink. Be confident. Set the family boundary lines, and keep them where you set them. Own your God-given role. Believe me, I know this is tough the first go-round, but if Kevin and I can fumble our way to figuring it out . . . you can too. Fake your confidence if you have to, and eventually you’ll start to feel confident and realize that God put you in charge for a reason. You’ll realize that even though you are not a perfect parent, you know more than even the world’s smartest two-year-old!
2. Expect quick obedience.
We shouldn’t have to coerce cooperation from our child by repeating ourselves eighteen times, or shouting at the top of our lungs, or making increasingly ridiculous threats—you know the kind, because we’ve all made them: “If you hit your brother one more time, then you are never allowed to get out of bed for the rest of your life! I will chain you to your bedpost FOREVER!”
I will say this: I’ve heard some parents insist, “First time, every time”—meaning that kids should obey the first time a parental command is issued, every single time. Honestly, I think that standard may be a bit unrealistic. I am more concerned with my kids’ overall attitude than with a perfect, immediate, borderline-robotic response to my every command.
3. Expect a respectful tone of voice.
Why does this matter? Because kids can do the right things, and say the right words, but their heart can be completely in the wrong place. Tones of voice that are tainted with sarcasm, moaning, frustration, and notes of my-Mom-is-an-idiot-but-I-humor-her-anyway . . . all these are disrespectful, and NOT OKAY. Not funny. Not cute. Not godly. Not acceptable. Not “just a phase.” Not something kids will eventually “grow out of.” Not issues that will go away if you just ignore them. Not conducive to your child having good relationships with other humans. Not permissible if you want to nurture a healthy parent-child relationship. These kinds of attitudes will become exponentially worse when they mature into teenage attitudes.
We’re working hard on this in our house right now. We refuse to allow our household to sound like a sitcom! This is often a teaching issue: When you catch your kids sounding sassy or disrespectful, don’t ignore it. Don’t let it slide. Point it out. Your child doesn’t get what they want until they rephrase and reorient their attitude. (For a post on practical strategies for dealing with whininess, you might like to read When Your Kid Won’t Stop Whining.)
4. Expect your child to show respect toward other adults: teachers, babysitters, coaches, etc.
Take this VERY seriously. Like, your-life-will-end-if-you-disrespect-another-adult seriously. When kids disrespect another adult, make a Big Deal out of it. Several months ago, our son lied to a babysitter. (Argh, on multiple levels!) He told her he had brushed his teeth when he hadn’t, and she busted him on it. (What is the deal with boys and hygiene?!) So once we had dealt with the deceit issue—and that was a Big Deal in itself—we turned our attention to the respect issue. He got in huge trouble at home, then he had to write a note of apology to the babysitter. For me, this episode brought back memories of something my brother did around the same age: My brother was rude to a church secretary, and my dad witnessed it. My dad gave my brother a hair-raising rebuke, then they went out and bought flowers for the woman, which my brother delivered to her after school the next day. You’d better bet that after experiences like these, my son and my brother learned to respect other adults. (Ahem—and to respect women!)
5. As kids get older and begin to think more independently, teach them how to ask questions in a respectful way.
We shouldn’t expect blind, unquestioning “Yes ma’am, no sir” obedience all the time. Should we sometimes expect immediate, unquestioning cooperation? Yes. Kids shouldn’t push back every single time we make a minor request or issue a simple command. (If they automatically push back every time, that’s a respect issue. A heart problem. A pride problem.) But sometimes, kids won’t understand our rules or our timing. They will have questions. They will wonder why we made a certain rule. And you know what? Asking questions is not inherently wrong. It’s okay for kids to wonder and to respectfully ask, “Why don’t I get to watch the shows all my friends watch?” Or “Why can’t I say that word?” Or “Why do I have to come in at nine when my friends don’t come in till eleven?” Or “Why don’t I have a smart phone yet?” Or “Why can’t I lie about my age and sign up for a Facebook account before I turn thirteen?” Or . . . whatever the issue is. These questions, as long as they are asked in a respectful way (not rude, not resentful, just curious), they open up great conversations. They provide teaching moments that allow us to really parent our children, at a much deeper level. These are the kinds of talks that prepare our kids to become Christians one day.
Take a listen to the conversations in your home this week. Is respect a problem? If so, start praying about it, and start tackling it one conversation at a time. You will probably have to start out strong at first, to get your child’s attention, but then as the lesson starts to sink in, you’ll be able to ease off the gas. “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior”—er, parent (Judges 6:12)! He has picked you to lead your children, and he will give you the strength you need to win your child’s respect—and heart.
Respect is a foundational lesson. It’s inseparable from other essential lessons about humility, confidence, authority, cooperation, and submission. If we win our children’s respect early—and keep winning it at all the different stages—then we are well on our way to raising respectful children who are both humble and confident. We are well on our way to building a happy home and a healthy, lifelong relationship.
Before you leave, don’t forget to subscribe to my monthly newsletter. As a welcome gift, you’ll receive seven two-minute devotions to do around the breakfast table with your kids! And every month, you’ll get a newsletter with parenting tips. You can subscribe here, or in the widget in the left sidebar!
Elizabeth works from home as a writer, editor, diaper changer, baby snuggler, laundry slayer, not-so-gourmet chef, kid chauffeur, floor mopper, dog groomer, and tantrum tamer. She is always tired, but it's mostly the good kind.