Teaching Kids to “Respect Their Elders”– Is It A Lost Cause?

Sorry for not writing for more than a few days, but I’ve been deep in thought and research about a topic that I know is near and dear to many parents’ (and grandparents’) hearts, not to mention Aretha Franklin’s: Respect. It has occurred to me this fall that, among the many values that Andy and I have actively tried to impart to our kids over the years, respect for adults has not been one of those we’ve worked especially hard at.  Geesh,  do we have to teach everything? Can’t some things just occur naturally? Well, for our oldest, respect for adults pretty much did come naturally, with the exception of the adults known as her parents, but hers is more of a “defying parents for the sake of defiance” issue rather than respect.  As far as I know and have seen over these past (almost) 17 years of her life, she is generally nothing but polite to teachers and other adults in her life.  We often hear compliments on her maturity and politeness.  Our youngest is a different story. I should have taken more notice during past Girl Scout meetings, when Emmie would talk to others while I or another leader would be trying to explain something to the group.  I should have taken more notice during elementary school—teachers would tell us she was talking back to them in class, talking while they were talking, arguing an unjust punishment for herself or others, laughing at something they’d say to her when she wasn’t supposed to be laughing…we’d implore her to behave and to stop getting in trouble. But we rarely had her look at things from the respect side—it’s not just “Behave so you won’t get into trouble”, it’s also, “These people are older than you, know a lot more than you, spend almost every day teaching you, and deserve your respect, or at least deserve to be treated with respect, whether you agree with everything they do and say or not.  Just like you like to be respected by younger kids.”  Emmie is a pretty deep thinker—I think she might have grasped that concept, especially if she’d heard it repeatedly, as I’m sure some parents repeat as often as they remind their kids to brush their teeth.  But maybe because she’s the baby, we let things slide?

Now in Jr. High and about 5 weeks away from becoming a teenager, it’s not teachers she’s disrespecting– it’s us.  Our baby, the sweet, empathetic one, the one who gives random hugs and is still not afraid to snuggle up next to either parent in the church pew on Sunday? Say it ain’t so!  But, just like she thought she was on the same level as her teachers back in elementary school, she truly thinks she’s on the same level as her parents. Here’s a recent example: I need to make a phone call one evening while I’m at my computer, and so I pick up the phone on my desk. Before I can dial the numbers, I hear girl voices on the phone and realize that Emmie is talking to a friend. “Hey Emmie, I need to make a call so you’ll need to get off now,” I say into the phone. That’s happened before– it’s routine in a two-story house when I can’t hear what’s going on upstairs, and me telling her that should be no big deal–  in the past she has wrapped up her call and called the friend back later. But this time she argues with me over the phone, with her friend still on the line.

“You can use your cell phone,” she tells me. (Excuse me, what?!)

“No, I don’t want to use my cell phone, you have your own cell phone that you can use,” I say. 

“I don’t know where mine is,” she says.

“Well, you need to find it and get off of the phone now.  I need to make a call.”

She won’t give up.  I ask Andy to help out, and when she hears he is coming she tells her friend good-bye and gets off the phone, but she is not happy, and makes it known to him.  All about how rude I am and how I can use my cell phone just as easily as she can. He tries to explain to her that the reception on my cell phone inside the house isn’t that great and that, especially for a business call, I need to use the land line.  But she doesn’t understand.  She thinks that whenever she asks me to use my other phone, I should be polite and just use it—“No other parent would be rude by saying no!” she spouted.  He tries to explain to her that I am the adult and she is the child, but she’ll have nothing of that talk.  She goes into a rage and proceeds to lose many privileges.

In the aftermath, I realize that while consequences for bad behavior are important, Andy and I have to get to the root of the problem if any behavior/attitude is going to change— this phone incident isn’t isolated, and after all these years of “sliding by”, she really does see herself on the same playing field as an adult. Can we possibly get her to learn respect at this stage?

According to many experts, it’s going to be hard…respect is something that should be instilled from toddlerhood on.  But what else can we do but try? Among the tips I gathered recently, I liked the following, which, if used regularly, may help us and anyone else who needs a respect boost:

-If you don’t want kids to put themselves at your level, don’t put yourself at their level. Don’t allow  yourself to get into an argument with a child—repeat your request and follow up with consequences if needed, but don’t defend your request. You can let it be known that you will be happy to discuss things later, but at present, you need such-and-such to happen. So many experts say again and again, Use As Few Words As Possible. Be Succinct. Be Firm. And, (deep breath) Be Calm.

-If a child calls you to ask you something in your house (non-emergency of course), no matter how small or how big the house, don’t get up and go to them.  If they need something, they need to come to you and ask in person. Do not set up the atmosphere that you are at their beck and call. If you need to ask them something, they need to come to you as well.

-Make sure you are modeling respect of elders by acting respectful toward those who are older than you—your own parents, other older relatives, etc.  If you need to vent about something, do so to your spouse or a friend out of earshot of your children.

-Constantly remind your kids to be respectful of adults when the child is going to a friend’s house, a club meeting, etc.  I think some kids have the mentality that they don’t want to be seen as a “suck up” or Teacher’s Pet, but there is a difference in being kind and respectful and being an “Eddie Haskell” (yeah, I’m showing my age with that one and I don’t care). Have them get comfortable with simply asking adults, “Is there anything I can do to help?” I hear that rarely from kids but when I do, it’s such sweet music. Follow up when your child returns, and ask them if they were able to help.

-Be confident and sure of yourself in front of your kids—leave the self-doubts for another place and time.  Use whatever it takes to help you feel that way— prayer and quiet time; music (the theme song from “Rocky” perhaps? “We are the Champions”? J); parenting books/tapes (I always feel like I have a confident edge for about 24 hours after I listen to a Love and Logic CD while cleaning or driving); television (old reruns of The Cosby Show or Andy Griffith can do the trick…or watching whoever else you think is a “confident parent” role model); reading this blog so that you know you’re not alone; and treating yourself well, i.e. getting enough sleep and eating right, can also go a long way in helping you be on top of your game. It’s amazing how much better I can face the stressful late afternoons of chauffeuring cranky kids around when I’ve snuck a snack in my purse. But what does being confident and treating yourself well have to do with respect? When you’ve got your act together, you’re less likely to put yourself on a child’s level when the going gets tough– not to mention that kids, especially older ones, will give some measure of respect to someone who’s confident rather than someone who’s always second-guessing themselves.

What do you do, if anything, in your family to help foster respect for adults?  Or what did your parents do for you? I’m all ears…(’cause I’ve been “in the dark” for so long…)

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