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Building stronger parent-child relationships

child shaking teachers hand

Encouraging Respectful Behavior

Faden Fulleylove-Krause, Extension Family Living Educator — Calumet County, University of Wisconsin; and Roberta Lawonn, Family Living Educator — Washburn County, University of Wisconsin

Revised July 2013 by Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for school success. Reviewed May 2016 by Lori Hendrickson, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency.

To Learn Respect, Children Must First Be Respected

Parents and caregivers can do many things to show respect for a child. Here are reminders of how we can do a better job of respecting our children.

Apologize to children when you're wrong. Parents are human and have bad days too. Forgive yourself when you mishandle a situation or hurt your child's feelings. It is just as important to tell the child you are sorry. Apologies that are specific and simple show children that you respect their feelings and feel sorry for your behavior. It's a good way to show that it's OK to make mistakes and admit it. It can bring you closer with love, understanding, and trust.

Be courteous and respectful in ordinary daily requests. The example parents and others set is the most powerful influence on children. Showing real interest in the feelings of others and sharing your time and energy with others are clear examples of compassion and non-selfishness. Talk with your child about your thoughts and motives for respecting others.

Use "Thank you", "Please", and "Excuse me". Manners, like saying “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” show you are aware of the needs and feelings of others. Your example teaches children to care about others. So use your manners and encourage your children to use theirs.

Avoid disciplining your children in public, especially in front of their friends. It is helpful when disciplining to establish rules, set limits, and determine what the consequences will be if they are not followed before you are in public with the child. If the child knows the rules and breaks them, a simple comment on your part will suffice and there need not be a big public scene. Use gentle physical contact and a normal tone of voice to guide the child rather than grabbing, yelling, or threatening. The goal is to enforce the rules in a non-threatening way that does not embarrass the child but encourages self-control and maintains everyone's self-respect. If friends are around, pull your child aside and handle the situation privately with him or her. Watch your tone of voice. Avoid a gruff demanding voice — replace it with a more direct, firm, but always respectful voice.

Allow your children privacy. Privacy is a two-way street for parents and children. As children grow, they develop a need for privacy. They learn to set boundaries around their bodies, ideas, and possessions. When parents respect their children's need for privacy they will get some for themselves.

Teach and enforce the “Please Stop” rule. The “Please Stop” rule is one that is effective in teaching respect for one another. If someone says “please stop,” the behavior has to be stopped immediately. This is a family rule that must be clearly understood by everyone. When used, there is no negotiating. Everyone must respect the request. This technique works best when it is taught to young children. It applies to all family members — adults too. Using this rule teaches children that they have control over what is done to them, that they can get the behavior to stop. It's a confidence builder and demonstrates that children need to be assertive about what is being done to their bodies. When these children are asked by others to “please stop,” they learn that other people deserve the same respect. (See Masick, 1997).

Respect Can Be Taught

Not only must children be treated respectfully, but parents and caregivers must also consciously work to teach respect to children by using these strategies.

Help children feel good about themselves. Be a positive person. Compliment your child when he or she does something well. Children need to see themselves as givers as well as receivers. This happens only when the child has opportunities to be responsible at home and in the community.

Show approval when children show empathy and caring. When your child does something considerate for someone else tell him or her that makes you feel proud, or let him or her hear you telling someone else how proud you are.

Provide acceptance and love. Consider your child's needs and the ways he or she likes to receive messages, that is by showing (doing things for him or her), telling ("I love it when...."), or touching (a big hug). Send no mixed messages. Be accepting of your own mistakes and the mistakes of your child. View your child's mistakes as part of the learning process.

Help children focus on the feelings of others. Although we are all born with the capacity for empathy (the ability to understand how others feel), it does not develop to the same extent in everyone. Fortunately, its development can be nurtured by the environment — most significantly by a child's parents. You encourage empathy in young children by making them aware of others' feelings and the reasons they feel the way they do. It is especially important to let your children know when they make you feel good or bad. Let your children know that you expect them to care about your feelings and show their sensitivity.

Talk about the negative effect of selfishness. Unfortunately, selfishness is common in today's society. Selfishness leads to less than desirable relationships at school, work, and home. Selfishness is prevented by accepting and loving children and by avoiding criticism, tension, anger, abusive or violent interactions, irritability, intense competition, and other negative family interactions.

Help children develop a sense of morality. It is extremely important that you help your children develop a sense of morality. Every day the newspapers are full of stories about cheating, aggressive behavior, stealing, and selfishness — stories about children and adults. Discuss making moral decisions such as cheating, aggression, stealing, and selfishness with your children to encourage them to monitor themselves and strengthen their feelings of empathy.

Bring up caring, fairness, and cooperation in everyday situations. Whether you're at a school event, sports activity, or community event find ways to demonstrate caring, fairness, and cooperation.

Model self-respect. This point is extremely important. If you want your children to show respect, it is important that you respect yourself. Here are some ways for you to build and maintain self-respect: develop your own interest, goals, and strengths; recognize your efforts, rather than focusing only on results; be positive about yourself and others; use your sense of humor to keep things in perspective; realize that you'll make mistakes, but that your children will probably survive anyway; take time for yourself to renew your strength and patience; and remember that you are worthwhile simply because you are human, not because you are a successful parent.

Encourage your children to find ways to help others. Volunteer as a family. For example, invite an elderly person for a meal, or volunteer to care for a cat or dog when your neighbor is away.

Use role play. Role reversal enables children to see and hear another role and then act that role themselves. For example, an adult can act in an exaggerated manner like a selfish child who only thinks of him or herself and wants everything.

Respectful Assertiveness Is Sometimes Necessary

Using respectful assertiveness one child confidently states how he or she feels or thinks, without putting down the other child. Children who respectfully assert themselves stand up for their rights, decide how to handle a situation, and convey to others that they will not be bullied. Some parents fear a compassionate child will be bullied or considered a “wimp” by other children. Try to realize that children who are respectful are generally nobody's push-over — other children will appreciate them for their respectful attitudes. Research shows that children and adolescents who are judged by peers as high in “character” (helpful, cooperative, sensitive to others' feelings) are among the most popular and successful in their schools and communities.

Children who are respected by their peers are those who communicate clearly that they demand respect for themselves. When confronted by a bully, a respectful child can assertively state his or her beliefs without using threats, name calling, or other put-down language. Parents can encourage children to stand up for their own rights and still acknowledge the feelings of other children. Using phrases like “please stop” or “stop doing that to me” will often command amazing respect. Other helpful skills for children who might find themselves being teased or bullied are ignoring, retreating from, or defusing the challenge. A child who can oppose “meanness” in a respectful, but firm, manner often enhances his or her self-esteem and position among peers. Raising your child to be respectful is worth the effort.

Respect is Learned

Respect has different meanings for different people. To learn respect children must first be respected. For example, treat others as you would like to be treated. Qualities such as empathy, compassion, kindness, and caring must be taught. If a parent fears a compassionate child will be teased or bullied, respectful assertiveness is needed. Remember to have a daily goal to demonstrate and encourage respectful behavior. Being respectful one time isn't enough — encouraging respect is a 24-hour-a-day responsibility. Consistently showing respectful behavior toward yourself and others is a very important part of encouraging respectful behavior in children.

The need for people to live in harmony with one another is increasing. As our society becomes more violent it is more important to encourage respectful behavior in children, families, communities, and our world. In a world made smaller by easier international connections, cooperation among individuals, concern for others, and support among different groups of people become important skills. Encouraging children to respect themselves and others will help to eliminate injustice, hate, and violence. This respect needs to start at home.


Faber, A., & Mazlish, E. (1982). How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk. New York, NY: Avon Books.

Dinkmeyer, D. C., McKay, G. D., & Dinkmeyer, J. S. (1989). Parenting young children: Helpful strategies based on Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) for parents of children under six. San Francisco, CA: AGS.

Missouri 4-H Center for Youth Development. (n.d.). Respect character connection.

Spagnoletti, C. L., &  Arnold, R. M. (2007, May). R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Even more difficult to teach than to define. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 22(5), 707–709.

Steinberg, L. (2004). The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

University of Minnesota Extension. (1997). Positive parenting II: A video-based parent education curriculum. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Extension. This product is no longer available.

Related resources

Praise that Builds a Child's Self-Esteem — Use praise to recognize the efforts and accomplishments of your children, and build their self-esteem in the process.

Talking about violence and loss — How to have conversations with your children about substance use and school violence.

Minimizing conflict over homework — Keep homework tensions at a minimum and use structure to minimize homework conflict.

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