Ask any parent: All they want is respect — just a little bit, to paraphrase the person who turned the R-word into an anthem.
Yet the quest for it seems more frustrating than ever. How can you sell respect to your kids when the playlist they’re plugged into, the sitcom they’re watching and the celeb they’re emulating practically redefine rudeness and audacity?
Yes, we can control our children’s surroundings when they’re very little. But it’s a short hop from Big Bird to Beavis and Butt-head, and the cultural landscape isn’t turning more wholesome anytime soon.
“All the systems that used to be in place for us have gone astray,” says Michele Borba, author of Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues That Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing and The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. “In the June Cleaver era, everyone was at least on the same page when it came to values systems. Other parents would back you up. But today, those other parents don’t necessarily have the same values.”
“Please” and “thank you” may not be de rigueur at your child’s friend’s house. Perhaps the friend’s parents tolerate backtalk and cheeky behavior. “Many parents want to be a pal instead of an authority figure,” says Borba.
And many — actually most — parents model disrespectful behavior, at times. By the time a child is 7, according to Borba, 98 percent of their parents have verbally lashed out at them. “Far too many kids are receiving a preponderance of sarcastic, disrespectful, negative messages from grown-ups,” writes Borba in Building Moral Intelligence. “No adult would put up with such rudeness from another adult, but kids often don’t have a choice.”
The irony? What parents want most — apart from health and happiness for their kids — is a caring, respectful child, says Borba. “It’s the basis of civility and the benchmark for kindness. It encompasses all those things we hold near and dear.”
It also transcends mere manners, those niceties we try to reinforce on a daily basis: “Say thank you,” “Ask if you can be excused from the table,” “Write your aunt a note.”
“I think of respect as an important social skill that affects how you get along in life,” says Jamila Reid, Ph.D., codirector of the Parenting Clinic at the University of Washington. “When kids don’t have those skills, it leads to difficulties with social interaction.” These are the kids who have trouble getting along with teachers and other adults — and too often, they’re the ones who become the school bullies, Reid says.
One mom’s method
Mindy Shivers takes no flak from her boys, ages 6 and 7. Maybe it’s her army-brat background or the years she spent living in the South. If you’re one of her kid’s friends, please call her Mrs. Shivers. If you’re a very close friend, call her Mindy. No, on second thought . . . make that Miss Mindy.
“I know it’s kind of an old notion,” says Shivers, a Bellevue resident. “But I’m not my kids’ friend. And being a kid is a special thing. They don’t want the adult to be their peer.”
Shivers’ home is a sass-free zone. “I talk to them about why they are not to sass me, and how the irreverent, sassy humor on TV is funny because it’s not real.” Even a random “Whatever!” is not tolerated in the Shivers house. “That kind of talk is completely inappropriate,” she says.
Shivers’ children know they’re to sit at the dinner table until everyone is finished, take turns talking and always, always respond when grown-ups speak to them. “I hear other parents say, ‘Oh, he’s shy,’ when their kids ignore adults. That, to me, is really lame.” It’s a parent’s job to teach their children how to look someone in the eye and respond, she says. “You need to help your kids through that. They should be well-liked and pleasant to be around.”
Since she spends time with like-minded families, other parents don’t view her rules as particularly rigid. “I don’t have a lot of tolerance for kids whom I perceive as disrespectful,” she says.
Parents who raise respectful kids don’t do it by accident, says Borba. “They are very purposeful. They say to their children, ‘In this family, this is how we behave.’” And they walk the walk by setting good examples. “Although the media present strong images, what children see day to day in their own homes are the most powerful models,” says Reid.
Everything counts. “Besides saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ are you listening to your child?” asks Borba. “How do you treat your spouse, your colleagues and your friends?”
Talk to your kids about positive ways to behave, Borba says. “Ask them, ‘What did you do wrong — and what will you do next time to make it right?’” It’s not cute when a child rolls his eyes or says, “Shut up,” she says. “Call your child on that kind of behavior immediately.”
Handling backtalk is tricky, says Reid. “Don’t tolerate it, but give it as little attention as possible. Ignore it until you get the behavior you want.” And stay calm during an argument. “Don’t add fuel to the fire. Say, ‘I’ll be willing to talk to you about this when you’re willing to be polite.’”
Most of us can’t keep our cool all the time. That’s OK, Reid says, as long as parents ‘fess up. “Say, ‘Mommy didn’t do a good job. I should have stayed calm.’ This models the apology, which is an important part of respect.”
And respect, says Shivers, is a crucial component for social development. “I want my children to make people feel valued, important and respected, and to put others first. That’s the best thing for my kids.”
Linda Morgan, ParentMap associate editor, discusses education issues on KING-TV’s regular feature “Parent to Parent.”