Nails in the Fence

A Technique to Teach Kids about Respect

Nails in the Fence Story- A Teaching Respect Technique

Why are kids so mean sometimes? With four kids, we’ve had our share of nasty moments. Kids' meanness (whether at parents, teachers, or friends) is really about lack of respect. What’s really going on in the child's mind (even if they don’t know it) is “I’m mad and I’m going to blurt whatever I want without considering the consequences.” A temper is powerful force so kids need to learn how to treat others with respect, even when they are upset.

Teaching Respect with the Nails in the Fence Story

To teach children about respect, it’s a good idea to start by helping them understand that their words have an impact on others. They need to see that it's important to consider how their words are going to make someone else feel, before they say them. Words said in anger can be particulary hurtful, and sometimes an apology won't fix the harm you cause.

Somewhere along the line I heard this wonderful story about treating others with respect. I’ve told each of our 4 children this story and it instantly made an impression. Learning the impact of their disrespect quickly changed my disgruntled children’s attitudes. Well in truth, they might have still been disgruntled, but at least they learned to talk about it with more respect and courtesy.

The story goes something like this:

There was a boy who was very nasty. Every day he scowled and stomped about. Whenever he was upset, he would say the nastiest things he could think of without a care for how the person hearing them would feel about it. One day, his father had enough. He told the boy, “Every time you say something mean, you need to go outside and hammer a nail into the fence. Every time you are nice, you can remove a nail.” At first, it was all nails, nails, nails. The fence was filling up with them. As the boy started to see how often he was being mean, he decided to work on being nicer. A kindness here, a pleasant word there. In time, instead of adding nails, he was pulling nails out. Finally, all the nails were gone. The boy was so proud of himself he ran to tell his father. His father quietly walked him out to the fence and said, “I’m glad you are being kinder. But look at what’s in the fence.” The boy proudly said, “There are no nails in the fence!” And the father responded, “But there are still holes. Every time you were mean, you did a little damage; and sometimes you can’t undo it. Now you know to think before you speak so you don’t cause hurt in the first place.”

Learning from Mistakes

Now, I’m all for forgiveness– it’s important for children to grow from their mistakes and move on. This story isn’t about holding guilt over the child. It’s about helping children pull out of their natural self-absorption long enough to realize a person with feelings is on the receiving end of their words. This story helped our kids consider the other person’s feelings more consistently, before they spouted off in their momentary anger. (It's been years since I originally published this blog and can happily update it to say my now teen and adult children still talk about "nails in the fence moments." They caught themselves before some disrespectful moments by remembering this story, particularly during the emotional teen years.)

More Resources on Respect

  • Be Bigger Story- This story teaches children to treat friends with caring, even when their feelings are hurt.
  • Respect Teaching Resources- Explore free teaching resources, like worksheets, presentations, posters and more lessons in respect.

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.