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Raising Respectful Kids

  • Whitney Von Lake Hopler Contributing Writer
  • Updated Sep 17, 2014
Raising Respectful Kids

When you ask your kids to start their homework or get ready for bed, do they respond right away or drag their feet? When they lose a game, do they move on gracefully or erupt in anger? When they disagree with others, do they consider other perspectives or insist on having their own way every time?

Respect is the core of all successful relationships, so it’s a crucial skill to teach your kids. If you teach your kids to respectful instead of rude, you’ll bring out the best in them and bless them with the ability to build strong relationships with God and other people their whole lives long.

Here’s how you can raise respectful kids:

Be proactive rather than reactive. Train your kids to be respectful instead of just reacting to their problem behavior with punishment. Understand that if you invest the time to help your kids learn how to be respectful and motivate them to do so, you’ll prevent many problems of disrespect and enjoy a positive relationship with your kids. Realize that the investment is worthwhile.

Set a good example. Recognize that your kids’ bad habits may be a reflection of your own habits. Take an honest look at your behavior and see what you need to change in order to demonstrate respect successfully to your kids. Consider the following areas: How you talk to your kids, the amount of time you spend with your kids, how you express frustration, the tone and volume of your voice when you correct your kids, the way you work through family problems, the reasonableness of your expectations in relation to the ages and understanding of your kids, how you joke with your kids, and the consistency of your devotional times. After you identify problem areas, surrender those areas to God and enlist the support and encouragement of someone close to you as you move toward change. Decide on specific action steps to take, such as apologizing to your kids whenever you lose your temper with them or complimenting your spouse in front of your kids often. Ask the person who is supporting you to hold you accountable to follow through with your action steps.

Help your kids learn fast listening. Explain to your kids that whenever you ask them to do something, they should respond the first time, quickly, and without arguing or complaining. Tell them that they can respond either by saying, “Okay, Mom,” or “Okay, Dad,” or by asking a question in a respectful way (such as “The show will be over in five minutes.  May I please wait until then to turn off the TV?”). Have your kids practice their fast listening skills in different situations, such as: putting toys away, getting ready for bed, starting homework, cleaning their rooms, helping with the dishes, coming in from playing outside, and turning off a video game. Keep each practice session short (between two and three minutes) and fun. Give your kids plenty of encouraging comments when they demonstrate good fast listening skills.

Teach your kids flexible thinking. Show your kids how to be flexible when things don’t go their way. Help them emphasize the positive aspects of a situation and quickly release their disappointment, rather than letting anger overtake them. Think out loud as you deal with frustrating scenarios in your own life, so your kids can get to know your thought processes as you approach various situations with flexibility. Emphasize these points when encouraging your kids to develop flexible thinking: Relying on God to help them handle daily challenges, putting things into proper perspective, letting the little things go, thinking of others ahead of themselves, and considering a different point of view. Work with your kids to create a short list of flexible thoughts that they can memorize and put to work whenever they encounter a frustrating situation. Consider such thoughts as: “It’s no big deal,” “Even though I lost, I still had fun,” “Everyone makes mistakes,” and “I can handle it.”

Show your kids how to solve problems. If any of your kids are age 7 or older, teach them problem solving skills so they can resist urge to act rudely when confronted with frustrating situations. First, have them stop to calm down for a few moments. Second, have them think of as many possible solutions to the problem as they can. Third, decide which solution (or combination of solutions) will work best. Come up with an action plan and encourage them to try the plan. Evaluate the outcome and make any adjustments that are necessary if the problem wasn’t solved the first time. If you’re in a rush and can’t work through all these steps with your kids, do “problem solving on the go.” First, make an empathetic comment that shows you understand the problem your kids are facing and care about how it’s affecting them (for example, “Honey, I know it’s hard to stop playing when you’re having so much fun.”) Then work with your kids to answer the question: “What’s a good idea for how we can handle this?”.  Let your kids suggest possible solutions, and contribute some yourself if they get stuck. Avoid arguments if some of their solutions are unreasonable. Simply stay calm and focused on finding a solution together.

Motivate your kids to be enthusiastic about respectful behavior. Help your kids understand that respectful behavior always turns out better than disrespectful behavior. Show them that acting respectfully can actually be fun and lead to privileges they can enjoy. Instead of focusing on the wrong behavior that you want your kids to stop doing, focus on the right behavior that you want them to start doing. Realize that if you emphasize what your kids do wrong, they’ll think of themselves as people who are expected to act rudely, and continue to do so. But if you emphasize what they do right, they’ll be inspired to act respectfully more often. Show your kids the connection between the respect they demonstrate and the privileges they earn. Help them understand that everything you and your spouse give them beyond their basic needs is a privilege, and that when they’re disrespectful, they lose privileges, but when they act respectfully, they gain privileges. Occasionally give your kids a surprise extra reward (such as a trip to an ice cream parlor) to recognize especially respectful behavior.

Pour on positive attention. Know that each of your kids wants as much positive attention from you as you can give. Every time your kids make respectful choices, speak encouraging words to them (such as, “Right after I asked you to get ready for bed, you zipped up the stairs right away! Great job; I’m proud of you!”) and reach out with warm, physical touch (like hugging them or gently squeezing their shoulders). Identify specific respectful behaviors you’d like to see increase, watch carefully for when your kids demonstrate those behaviors, catch them in the act, and reward the respectful behavior with focused positive attention. Try to give each of your kids at least five positive attention rewards every day.

Jumpstart your efforts with a behavioral contract. If one of your kids is stuck in a rut of disrespectful behavior, use a behavioral contract (a detailed agreement that connects a certain positive behavior with a specified reward) to give him or her a boost. Specify the behavior you want to increase, focusing on just one behavior at a time. Explain why this behavior is important to your family and to God, and how the contract will work. Develop a reward menu that spells out what privileges your child can earn through good behavior (ask him or her to suggest some privileges he or she would like). Discuss how the rewards will be earned, and write up the contract. Then evaluate how the contract works in actual practice, and make any adjustments that need to made. When you think your son or daughter has improved sufficiently and made respectful behavior an established habit, phase out the contract.

Present your kids with a fork in the road. Show your kids that disrespectful behavior works out badly, fast, and every time. When your kids start to act disrespectfully, remind them of how to handle the situation respectfully. If your kids don’t respond respectfully after one or two reminders, tell them exactly what to say or do to turn the situation around, and let them know what will happen if they continue to behave disrespectfully. For example, you could say, “Kayla, I’d like you to pick up your pencil and start your homework right now, or you’ll go to time-out.” Give your kids five to seven seconds to decide. Then either immediately praise a positive choice or administer a negative consequence. Be consistent and don’t give up, remembering that your kids will eventually learn to turn their behavior around.

Use time-outs wisely. Know that a time-out is not intended to be a punishment; it’s an opportunity to help kids calm down and get a fresh start. Tell your kids that their job while they’re in time-out is to think of a new plan for better behavior. Choose a time-out spot that’s boring (such as bathroom or the bottom or stairs) so your kids aren’t distracted by anything fun to look at, hear, touch, etc. Make sure the spot is also safe and easy for you to monitor. (If you’re out in public, either use a private spot such as your car or go home as soon as possible and immediately begin time-out there.) Tell your kids that they need to have quiet feet, hands, and mouths while they’re in time-out. Keep the time-outs short – just three minutes. But lengthen the time-outs by one minute (up to a 30-minute maximum) every time your kids demonstrate noisy feet, hands, or mouths. Be sure to use a timer to keep track of how long the time-outs are running. If your kids refuse to go to time-out soon after you tell them to do so, or if they act up in time-out and reach the maximum time limit, take away one of their favorite privileges.

Make consequences logical. Connect a privilege loss to the specific disrespectful behavior that caused the problem. For example, if one of your kids colors on the wall with markers, he or she will have to clean the wall and lose coloring privileges for a few days. Adjust the length of the privilege loss depending on the situation, and combine the privilege loss with other negative consequences if necessary. Consider other logical consequences, such as giving your kids an earlier bedtime or having them write sentences (or, for older kids, a short essay) about the disrespectful behavior they had just demonstrated.

Practice positive behavior. Give your kids regular opportunities to practice respectful behavior that you’d like to see them demonstrate more. Identify exactly what you’re looking for. Then, during free time when your kids would otherwise be doing something they choose themselves, have them practice the respectful behaviors five to 10 times in a row. Try to keep the practice time upbeat and enjoyable, and give your kids plenty of encouraging comments.

Respond to negative behavior quickly and consistently. Help your kids learn that disrespectful behavior works out badly, fast, every time. Don’t wait to implement a negative consequence after your kids act disrespectfully, and be sure to do so whenever that happens.

Be careful with spanking. Understand that spanking isn’t a quick fix to the problem of disrespectful behavior, and that it can result in serious negative side effects (including: it can severely damage the parent-child relationship, it can become physically abusive, and it can teach a child that aggression is a valid way to solve problems). Consider spanking only if your kids are between the ages of two and five, and then only in situations where you need to correct behavior that could bring immediate harm to your kids (such as running toward the street) or that was significantly disrespectful (such as refusing to go to time-out). Never spank older kids for any reason; use negative consequences instead. When spanking young kids, do on only on the buttocks, over the clothes, with an open hand, with no more than two or three swats, and never hard enough to leave marks or injure your kids in any way.

Be patient. Don’t rush the work God is doing in your kids’ lives. Ask God to give you the patience you need to work gently with your kids over the time it takes for their new respectful behaviors to take root and grow into habits that will shape their character and bless their future.


Adapted from Respectful Kids: The Complete Guide to Bringing Out the Best in Your Child, copyright 2006 by Dr. Todd Cartmell.  Published by NavPress Publishing Group, Colorado Springs, Co.,       


Todd Cartmell, Psy.D., is a child psychologist with a practice in Wheaton, Illinois. The author of The Parent Survival Guide and Keep the Siblings, Lose the Rivalry, he is married with two children. Visit his website, for parenting tips, workshop information, and more.