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How to Teach Kids When It Feels Like Respect is Disappearing

Do you ever feel like respect is disappearing from kids’ vocabulary these days? If so, read on.

As I passed by a Sunday morning kindergarten classroom a few weeks ago, I overheard a frustrated volunteer negotiating with a 5-year-old boy. She was trying to get him to join the rest of the class for the Bible story. As the boy ran in circles around the other children, the volunteer kindly asked him to please join the group. I stopped to watch his response as he walked over to his classroom leader, stared her directly in the face, and shouted, “You can’t make me! You’re not the boss of me!”

“R-E-S-P-E-C-T,” by Aretha Franklin, has become a battle cry for many adults who work with today’s children. From the classroom to fields to children’s ministry programs — today’s kids have gained the unpleasant reputation of being disrespectful. And adults aren’t the only targets of disrespect — kids lack respect for property, each other, even themselves. Why is a lack of respect one of the biggest problems among kids today?

What They See Is What You Get

Flip the channels of your television and you’ll get a glimpse of how respect is modeled via the media. Whether it’s sitcoms, cartoons, or movies— kids are viewing programming that encourages them to be less respectful of others. Music and video games can also lay a foundation of disrespect and hostile behavior. This is especially true when there’s a lack of guidance and discussion about appropriate behaviors at home.

Good Intentions Out of Control

In an eagerness to raise independent children, many adults have stopped disciplining children for being disrespectful.

Resistance to exercise authority for fear of stifling a child’s independent nature has bred children who display a lack of honor to individuals in a position of authority. Today’s kids often believe they’re on the same level as adults and have a right to reasons behind adult decisions; they argue against every decision made that doesn’t meet their expectations. In a desperate attempt to be liked by their children, many parents compromise their parental role to be their child’s “buddy.”

Children Learn What They Live

This poem displayed in many schools and physician’s offices is all too true when it comes to the virtue of respect. Attend a youth soccer game and watch parents who yell at the referees or chew out the coach when their child doesn’t get enough time on the field. Or listen to the mom who intimidates a teacher in front of others regarding her son’s reading progress or the dad who explodes at his daughter in front of her friends for being late. Despite the outside influences, the bottom line is that many kids today lack a positive model for respect at home. The “Do as I say, not as I do” method may sound good in theory, but the reality is that kids are watching their parents carefully as they model the behavior of the people who have the most influence in their lives.

Cultivating Respect in a Field of Rudeness

Can the church plant seeds of respect in children and expect those seeds to grow when they aren’t being properly tended at home? The question is one of faith. Will God honor the values we teach? Will God instill those values on the hearts of the kids — that one day they may be a positive model of respect for others? Learning respect is an integral part of healthy child development, and it’s never too late to start instilling this virtue in the children who walk through your doors each week. Here’s how.

Be a role model.

Many kids in your ministry may not have a healthy model of respect at home. But if you treat children with respect, you’re teaching them to respect others. Facilitate respect by having kids make cards for others who are sick, saying “thank you” when someone offers help in class, or acknowledging people when they show kindness to another. Talk to kids in a kind tone — even when disciplining a child, your tone can be confident without yelling. Kids will learn more from our behavior than from our lectures.

Set the ground rules.

Kids need boundaries to feel safe and secure in their environments. Boundaries and simple rules lay the foundation for what will and won’t be tolerated. Kids respect adults with rules that are fair, and it often helps to let kids have a say in what rules they’re expected to follow. Kids who have no limits at home will have trouble with limits at church. But limits will inevitably bring comfort to children, especially when the rules are consistent and are followed through with love.

Create immediate consequences.

Kids need to know the consequence for disrespect and that you’ll follow through. If possible, make the consequence logical to the offense. For example, if a child makes a rude comment about another child, have him write an apology and include at least two positive comments about the child he offended. Sometimes a reminder of the Golden Rule followed by discussion is consequence enough — “Sally, would you appreciate it if I made that rude comment to you?” Or have a child who’s been disrespectful to you explain his actions to his parents when they arrive to pick him up. This will not only acknowledge to them that there was a problem, but it can also be a teachable moment in assisting families with communication. When a child displays disrespect for property, such as deliberately smashing crackers into the floor, have the child clean and vacuum the room at the end of class.

Name rude behavior.

With the vast array of messages children receive, they may genuinely be unaware that their words or behavior are inappropriate. Respond to inappropriate behavior with comments such as, “Jacob, the tone you just used was disrespectful and is not acceptable in this room.” In the same manner, give praise when kids display respect to others: “Ashley, thank you for waiting to talk until I was finished. That was respectful of you!”

Help kids look in God’s mirror.

It’s amazing how many young children display behaviors that are disrespectful to themselves. Even preteens are experimenting with behaviors such as cutting themselves, binge eating or anorexia, and inappropriate Internet chatting. If children can’t show respect to themselves, they’ll definitely have difficulty showing respect to others. Tell kids that they’re created in God’s image and that God loves them unconditionally. Helping kids respect themselves is the first step toward respecting others.

Help respect bloom at home.

Children’s ministers have an hour, sometimes two, to influence a child’s behavior each week. Parents have a greater amount of time to model respect for their children during the week. Remind parents of the important role they play in developing positive behavior traits in children. Help parents learn how to instill values in their children that’ll last a lifetime. Provide materials with activities and devotions that families can do together. Offer parenting classes that teach parents the importance of being a respectful role model for their children. Lead a worship service designed for families that teaches kids and parents together the importance of respect.

Respect is a character trait that should be foundational for children as they grow and mature. Letting kids get away with inappropriate behavior will only breed more of the same. Kids will typically demonstrate as much respect as we ask of them. In a world where respect is rarely modeled for kids today, it’s essential that we do all we can to instill this value in the lives of the children we minister to each week.

Carmen Kamrath is a former associate editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine.

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