How do parents go about gaining their children's respect? Some parents command respect without ever asking for it. They display a quiet...

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How do parents go about gaining their children’s respect?

Some parents command respect without ever asking for it. They display a quiet authority similar to Atticus Finch in the classic movie “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He respected his children, and it followed that his children respected him. Then the ripple effect occurs; children respect themselves and others as well. Parents who don’t respect their children don’t generate it from them. Now, they may be able to instill a fearful respect, but that’s different. These children exhibit a false deference toward their parent knowing that if they don’t, the consequences will be unbearable. These children turn around and treat others with similar fear tactics that were used on them; they bully siblings and peers when away from adult supervision.

Gaining your children’s respect doesn’t come from using your intellectual or physical ability to outsmart or outmuscle a smaller person. Parents who treat their child with respect gain allegiance by using their internal and emotional strength to strengthen their children. It involves doing the work you need to do as a parent with respect for each child at the center.

When it comes to respect between parents and children, the playing field isn’t equal. Parents have more knowledge and experience; they’re older and wiser, more mature. Therefore, children should show deference to them. Children, however, because they’re immature and often willful, demanding and pleasure-seeking, don’t come packaged to respect their elders. Their social skills are unrefined, so it takes patience and time to instill the virtuous quality of respect in children.

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The biggest challenge for any parent comes when a child shows disrespect with a line such as, “You can’t make me do that!” It’s sassy back talk accompanied by a surly tone of voice and nasty body language. Even though the child is disrespectful, the parent needs to respond respectfully. Respectful treatment of children doesn’t equate to obedience or indulgence, it’s effective parenting with respectful treatment at the heart.

In such situations, take the child aside while saying, “That’s disrespectful behavior, I won’t allow it. I don’t treat you disrespectfully; it’s not OK to talk that way to me or anyone.”

A 3-year-old hitting a parent needs a firm but loving hand to stop the hits. An 8-year-old kicking her mother is clearly disrespectful; she needs a firm but kind reprimand. A 4-year-old talking back isn’t necessarily disrespectful; it’s more likely immature and unrefined language skills. The child needs to learn the language of civility, which may take years. A teenager making mean-spirited fun of her mother in front of extended family members or friends is behaving with disrespect. She needs to be reminded that she’s speaking in disrespectful terms and that it’s not acceptable.

Intolerable acts of disrespect toward children come when parents are abusive, capricious with their power or act erratically as a result of mental illness or an addiction. These are drastic displays of disrespect. Others come in the form of sarcastic, demeaning, mean-spirited remarks. Some parents make fun of children, fool or laugh at them, all equating to disrespectful treatment.

Respect is one of those abstract terms that people define through their own experience. What do respect and disrespect mean to you? Can you articulate the way in which respect defines the character of your life as a parent? Can you think of methods to parent your children which will provide them with an oasis of respect and safety while putting them on the road to being independent competent people?

From teaching a toddler to use the toilet to coaching your teenager to drive, put respect in the middle and it will be returned.

Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at janfaull@aol.com or write to:

Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists