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How can I teach my daughters to respect others?
Q: We have two girls, ages 2½ and 4½, who seem to have no respect for anything. I have been trying to get them to use their manners and understand the importance of not only their own things but other people’s things as well. Whatever I do, they never seem happy and react with a lot of yelling and tantrums. What should I do? I feel exhausted from trying to please them and trying to get them to act politely.
A: It sounds as though you have your hands full, and I don’t think there is an easy solution to your problems. For some reason, such behaviour tends to be more common in young boys than girls, but your daughters serve as a reminder that we can’t ever write a hard and fast rule about anything. We have become so conscious of parental influence on our children that we sometimes forget that they come with their own built-in predispositions. They have a way of making their own suggestions. Your daughters both obviously have high activity levels, and I would be willing to wager that they were “difficult” babies -- they cried vigorously, wanted things instantly, were hard to quiet or comfort, etc. The word currently used to descote this predisposition is “temperament,” an old-fashioned word that fell out of favor for a time but is once again acceptable.

I can highlight one thing that may be a factor in the situation with your daughters. When you have demanding children, it is tempting to ignore their demands at first in hopes they will stop. What happens then is that they escalate in volume and intensity, and you finally respond. What are you doing when that happens? You are reinforcing their outburst at the highest level; in time they will come to eliminate the low-level behaviour and go straight to the intensity at which they got a response. Does that make sense to you? So make a special effort to be sensitive to positive, low-intensity behaviour and prevent this sort of escalation.

Regarding their lack of respect for their own and others’ possessions, I would take away any item they abuse and simply say, “You can’t play with that until you learn to take care of it.” And, if they damage other children’s toys, those children will not want to play with them.

Finally, be alert to your own behaviour. Let them see that the rules of politeness you are trying to teach them also apply to you. Some parents become angry if their child doesn’t say, “please” and “thank you,” but they never use those expressions in interactions with the children. Be a good model of politeness and respect.