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Respect: The Fourth “R” for Young Children
I grew up in a small Texas town where “nice” children were taught—forced might be a better word—to say “Ma’am” and “Sir” when talking to their parents, their teachers or their friends’ parents. To all grown-ups, for that matter. That habit was deeply ingrained in me, and I complied with the rule until I was a college freshman working in the dean’s office. One day the assistant dean took me aside and said, very graciously, “‘Yes’ and ‘No’ will be sufficient. You don’t need to say ‘Ma’am’ and ‘Sir’ anymore.” Although she didn’t say it, the implication was clear to me: In using these expressions, I sounded like a girl from the country—which I was.

So, when I became a mother, I didn’t teach my children to say “Ma’m” and “Sir,” and there are probably very few mothers who do so these days. But, in the good American tradition of pendulum swinging, have we gone too far in the opposite direction? Sometimes, when I visit friends with a young child and ask a question like, “Did you have a nice Christmas?” I get as a reply a sullen, “Yeah, it was OK.” That’s when I find myself wishing that “Ma’am” and “Sir” had not disappeared from our rhetoric.

A similar disappearing act has occurred with respect to surnames. Have you noticed how often these days, when you ask a person his or her name, you get “Julia,” “Sam,” “Latoya” or “Prentice”? “Julia who?” I always want to ask—and usually do. I must confess that I am always just a little shaken when a friendly neighborhood 5-year-old comes up to me when I am working in my yard and asks, “Bettye, can I go in your house and get a drink of water?”

Referring again to my childhood, we would not have dared call our mother’s friends or neighbors by their first names. It was always “Miss Julia Mae” or “Mrs. Layton.” Again, that may have been more southern than American. Yet it was interesting some years ago, when I first became a childcare director, that the teachers and I held several staff meetings to discuss what the children should call us. In that very northern city (Syracuse, New York), the teachers chose to have themselves called “Miss Margaret” or “Mrs. Kathryn.” Many programs use that custom today.

These little practices were tokens of respect, and there is nothing wrong with having young children show respect for the adults who love and care for them. “Respect” is rather like a fourth “R” along with Reading, “Riting,” and “’Rithmatic.” Children need to develop it in order for pleasant social interaction to become a regular family occurrence.

The specific customs, perhaps of no great importance in themselves, nonetheless indicated that children were being taught to “show respect for their elders.” We still want that today, but we have apparently become disenchanted with the procedures we used to demonstrate such respect. Or perhaps we no longer think respect is all that important. So we let children indiscriminately interrupt someone who is speaking without waiting or saying “Excuse me” if their message is really important. We let them remain sitting in a chair or on a sofa if an adult is having to stand, break into lines, push ahead of people going in or out of a door, and change the channel on a TV when others are watching a program. These are all minor infractions of family and societal rules, but they symbolize a more pervasive attitude toward adults that I don’t think we need to reinforce. We want our children to be respectful of adults—and other children—within and outside their families. I have three suggestions of ways to help in this process.

1. Expect Respect.
Let your children know that in your home one just doesn’t talk disrespectfully to adults—or to anyone, for that matter. If one of them says or does something rude and disrespectful when you have guests, calmly but firmly escort him out of the room. Don’t just tell him to leave and expect him to obey. If he doesn’t already show respect for your guests, he will probably disobey you, protesting, “I want to stay here” and embarrassing you further. Don’t worry about embarrassing him; disrespectful children don’t embarrass easily. And, of course, the showing of respect needs to be from adult to adult as well as child to adult and adult to child. It is difficult to develop respect in children if all they hear from the adults in the family is bickering, name-calling and commands. Respect grows in a respectful social garden, one with kindness and courtesy as water and fertilizer.

2. Model Respect.
Respect is a two-way street. Don’t expect your young child to show respect to you and other adults if your usual interchanges with him are something like, “You crummy kid. I don’t want you in the room anymore when my friends are here.” A teacher might report of your daughter in a parent-teacher-child conference: “She has been really sassy to me lately and says she doesn’t have to mind me if I tell her to do something.” If that happens, resist the temptation to tell the teacher to wash her mouth out with soap or send her home. Try something like, “Give me an example of something she said and let me have a chance to discuss it with her at home.” When you discuss it with the child, use the word “respect” several times and stress that it is an important part of family and school life. If the child can print or write, have her write a simple apology. If she can’t print or write, encourage her to draw a picture of the conflict and offer to write a caption for her. Rehearse with her some things she might say in stressful situations in the future.

3. Reinforce Respect.
All of us have learned the importance of reinforcing language development or other manifestations of competence with words of praise or some tangible reinforcement. It is equally important to reinforce signs of respect. Let’s say that Grandma is visiting and your son, knowing she has pain in her back, goes and gets a pillow to put on her chair. Now you can be sure that Grandma is going to pat or hug him and tell him what a good boy he is. But later, when she is gone, make certain that you tell him how much what he did pleased you as well as his grandmother. And it never hurts to add a little homily: “We all do better in life when we learn to be nice to one another.”

These three techniques—expect, model and reinforce—won’t develop a respectful child overnight. But, over time, they will accomplish your goal. They will help respect become a significant fourth “R” in the learning lives of young children.

After having begun this article with comments about the past, I want to end it with some observations about the future. Changes in language and language usage have always fascinated me. We don’t give up old words or accept new ones easily, but when we do the action is highly significant culturally. Think for a minute about a powerful new word that appeared in our vocabularies four or five years ago that relates to the topic of respect: “diss.” If you’re monitoring a playground and are called on to pull apart two boys going after one another with all the strength they can muster, and if you ask one of them, “What happened? What did he do to you?” you’re almost certain to get as one answer, “He dissed me.” This word did not come from linguists. It came from children who were trying to express a feeling that was extremely important to them.

The first time I heard the word, I wasn’t smart enough to figure out what it meant and had to ask the kids in the school where I was principal. Although the answers I got might not have been concise and dictionary-like, I quickly learned that dissing someone meant not showing respect, or worse, showing disrespect. Kids don’t want to be dissed, and they like having a word to express their feelings. I think the word will be around in the future and may even make forthcoming editions of dictionaries. And there is your biggest help in fostering an attitude of respect for adults: adults don’t like to be dissed, either. “Learn how to avoid it, kids. You’ll be a lot happier, and so will everyone else.”
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education