When my youngest was about 4, we started realizing we were going to have to pick our battles with her carefully. Strong-willed doesn't begin to start to describe her. We quickly realized we would be fighting with her over everything if we didn't decide what was important and what we were willing to let go.
When we sat down and looked at the things that were important, we boiled it down to two things: safety and respect. We decided the battles worth fighting with her were only worth it if they involved her or someone else's safety or if they involved respect, for herself or others.
Respect covers a lot of ground. It's not just about saying "please" and "thank you" or calling an adult "Mr." or "Mrs." Respect means putting others first and treating them like they are important. It takes into account someone else's feelings. It covers friends, family, people you don't like and yourself.
The Bible puts it this way: "Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor" (1 Peter 2:17). God doesn't tell us to respect the people we like or the people who have earned it. He says we should respect everyone, even those we don't like. When this verse was written, the emperor was persecuting the Christians, yet Peter tells those same Christians they must show respect to the emperor.
Respect is important because it shows others that we care about them. When we take into account someone else's feelings -- even when we don't particularly care for their point of view -- we acknowledge that they are due respect simply because they, too, were made by God.
So, how do we teach our children to respect others? It's such a vague concept. How do we break that down into a concrete form for our kids?
- Eliminate name-calling. When we call someone else a name or identify them as "stupid" or "dumb," we devalue the other person. Make a no name-calling rule in your home, and enforce it. Eliminate words like "stupid" and "dumb" from your household vocabulary.
- Teach your kids to think about how they would like to be treated, then encourage them to treat others that way. Jesus said "So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12). When your kids treat their siblings or a friend in a disrespectful manner, discuss what happened with them and help them brainstorm better ways to treat their friends or siblings next time.
- Make respect a big deal. Create a contest where you reward your kids for respectful behavior. Make it fun and silly. For example, if you catch a child being respectful, crown them king or queen of dinner. Let them wear a goofy crown, get served first and be able to pick dessert.
- Don't hesitate to correct your kids, even if you're out in public. Disrespectful behavior is just like any other behavior. It becomes a habit if allowed to take root. Don't embarrass your children, but make sure they know that being in public doesn't shield them from the consequences of being disrespectful. My favorite correction for disrespect is to make my kids apologize, then start over with a new request or comment.
- Watch the tone. Kids can be disrespectful without saying anything wrong. Their tone of voice can convey disrespect. Call them on it when their tone gets out of hand. Make them ask for what they want in a tone that conveys respect. A good way to help your kids understand this is to tape record them and play it back. Ask them if they think their tone of voice is respectful. Practice modulating the tone with them.
Respecting others is simply putting the other person first and treating them like the beautiful creation of God that they are. If we keep that image foremost in our minds, respecting others will come easier.