Tips for teaching kids to communicate with respect

Whatever!- Social Emotional Learning Technique on Respect

Whatever! Picture my 13-year-old self, permed hair 3-feet high, cropped top, and Jordache jeans, hands on hips, with a Billy Idol snarl. As you might expect given that visual, I grew up hearing, "It’s not only what you say, it's also how you say it." In fact, my parents banned the word “whatever” in our household because we just couldn’t keep ourselves from rolling our eyes when we hit the last two syllables of the word.

I didn’t fully get it then, but now, as a parent, I understand the importance of communicating respectfully. Teaching kids respect for parents, teachers, friends, and self is essential. Imagine if my parents didn’t correct my disrespectful tones and I spoke to my boss like that? Or worse, a police officer? “A ticket? Whatever!!!”

The importance of communicating with respect

Now, with kids of my own, I find myself pulling this classic parental phrase out of storage. My kids’ talent for making the word “sorry” sound like an insult is nothing short of amazing. Or how about all those statements that sound like they end in “, stupid”. The phrase “It’s a grasshopper (, stupid)” has the power of a slap along with it.

Respect means "you act in a way that shows you care about others' feelings and well-being.” Whether it’s an insincere apology, or turning a clarifying statement into a put down, it’s simply disrespectful to talk to others with the tones, snarls, and eye rolling that seems so popular in kids’ worlds.

Sometimes, disrespect is not even on purpose

Often, my kids know full well that they are throwing some attitude around. Other times, they truly have no idea what their face, body, and tone are communicating. I’ve debated carrying a mirror and tape recorder around (I think I just dated myself there) just to show them what I’m seeing and hearing from them. If I mimic back what they said, the way they said it, they don’t believe they could possibly have been that rude, aggressive, or obnoxious. They just get mad. Suddenly I’m the bad guy. Hmmph.

How to encourage more respectful communication

Taking my lead from parenting expert Michele Borba, I figured that I need my kids to see what they are doing and learn to do it a different way. In her book, "The Big Book of Parenting Solutions", Borba writes, “Most parents have no problem naming what they want to stop, but to achieve change you must also identify what behavior you want instead…No behavior or attitude will change unless you teach another behavior, skill, or habit to replace the current, inappropriate one.”

So here’s an approach that is showing some success. When they say something in a tone or with a look, I say simply and quietly, “I think you want to try that again.” They instantly have to self-reflect, without being under attack, and replace the undesirable behavior with the desirable one. They get a bit prickly about it, but that’s only because it’s hard for them to accept their error gracefully. I’m hoping that with time, they’ll learn to use respectful speech the first time, and skip the humble pie.

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Parenting book- The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

Colleen Doyle Bryant

Author of social emotional learning books and teaching materials including Talking with Trees series for children and Truth Be Told Quotes for teens.