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The Informed Parent


by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Dec. 23, 2002

I work as a behavior specialist in the public school system. One of the concerns that teachers express is the disrespect that students show, both to adults and to other students. During meetings with parents, a complaint that they all share is the lack of respect their children show them.

I hear children on the playground talking to each other in harsh voices that deliver mean messages. Recently a child approached me, flung her arm over my shoulder, and said in a haughty tone, “When do I get to work with you?” I removed her arm, stepped back and replied, “I do not like to be spoken to disrespectfully. I’d like you to try again.” She looked abashed and restated her request politely. When I hear disrespect coming from children, I know that it is not situational to the school setting. It takes place in the home, too.

Many parents seem to be confused about what to expect from their children in today’s indulgent society. They often treat their offspring as social equals. They are afraid to take their role as authoritative parents.

Authoritative does not mean the same thing as authoritarian. Authoritative parents know that they are accountable for assisting their children in becoming responsible human beings. They use the tools of effective parenting that are discussed in THE INFORMED PARENT articles. They are respectful of children. At the same time it is understood that in most cases they know more than their children, and must clearly set and maintain the positive climate of the family.

Part of the lyrics of an oldies song says “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what that means to me.” An important element of teaching and reinforcing respect requires that parents determine what it means to them. To some it may mean using the titles sir and ma’am when addressing adults. It may mean using Mr. or Mrs. with adults instead of first names. In most families using please and thank you regularly is part of respect. Many parents know what they expect in tones of voices from their children.

The following guidelines will assist you in creating and maintaining a climate of respect in your family:

Model respect

Children learn what they observe. Use a pleasant tone of voice when speaking to your children and others. Sometimes parents need to be firm. Listen to your tone and develop the difference between a firm voice and a disrespectful voice. Don’t call the children, your friends, or other family members names, even if you think it’s teasing. Name-calling is hurtful and degrading. Respect children’s privacy. Don’t read their diaries or listen in on their phone calls. (This privacy boundary can be broken if you believe that your adolescent is involved in drugs or other dangerous behavior. But you must have serious concerns.) Don’t expect your children to do household chores that you wouldn’t do.

Expect respect

Know that it is your right to be respected. Teach your children to use a kind tone of voice and words, and expect that they will be used. Recognize the difference between a disrespectful tone of voice and a tone of frustration or anger. “Why do I have to clean up the stinkin’ house? You never do it,” is disrespectful. “I hate having to clean up the house on Saturday when I want to go to the show,” is frustration. Just like you can develop a firm tone that is respectful, when kids use loud voices they don’t necessarily carry disrespect. Words that belittle, are mean, or intrude on another’s values always convey disrespect.

Address disrespect immediately

When your youngster speaks disrespectfully, bring it to his attention immediately. Say, “That was disrespectful. I’d like you to try it again using different words (or a different tone of voice).”

Be consistent

In many of THE INFORMED PARENTING articles, I’ve spoken about the necessity of consistency in effecting behavior change. If change is to occur, you must be willing to address disrespect each time you hear it. This does not mean nagging your child. When my daughters were growing up, one of them developed the habit of whining. When she whined to me, I simply said, “Try a different way.” She knew that that meant to use her “big girl” voice. You might choose a phrase to use that indicates you will not accept disrespect and that you need to hear something different.

Teach when necessary

Some children may speak disrespectfully to you, their siblings, and others so habitually that they either don’t know how or don’t remember how to do it differently. Teach them appropriate words and tones of voice to use. Then give specific recognition when they talk to you appropriately. Say, “I like to hear the words (may I, please, thank you, etc.) when you ask me...,” or “I appreciate it when you talk to me with that pleasant (or kind or quiet, etc.) tone of voice.”

Using and expecting respect may not be easy. We are bombarded with models of disrespect, from the lyrics of some of today’s songs to some of the families portrayed on TV. When we watch families like THE SIMPSONS we may laugh. Disrespect is not funny, though. It is degrading. If children are to learn to be successful in the family, school, and the greater society, they must develop the skills of expressing themselves politely and respectfully.

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