What does it mean to show respect?  Who is worthy of respect?  And how does a child learn to show it?

As parents, we want our children to learn our values.  Sometimes we struggle to figure out how, exactly, to do that.  We might try to explain what we believe in, or instruct children how to behave, but ultimately, it is what we do that often has the greatest impact on children.  They watch us.  And they see everything…even the things we wish they didn’t notice us doing.

So what about respect?  How can a parent teach a child respect?

Respect is sometimes confused with fear:  if a child is punished or threatened, s/he may be more reluctant in the future to act similarly.  But what drives that reluctance?  It may not be respect, but something else entirely.

Respect may be defined as a feeling of admiring something about someone else–something positive, or important in some way valuable.  Showing respect, however, is more dependent on family or cultural factors.  Perhaps it is understood that you stand up when your grandfather enters the room, or you look a person in the eye when you shake her hand.

The first secret for children to learn respect begins with their parents understanding in their own minds how they define it.  That is, as a parent, what does respect mean to me?  Not just the gestures and rituals we use to demonstrate respect, but how it feels on the inside to respect someone else.

The second secret for children to learn respect is to experience how it feels to be treated respectfully.  When my mom was a child, parents in her community said, “children are meant to be seen and not heard.”  Her experience was that conversation was something that happened between adults while children sat quietly and listened.  When I was growing up, I never heard that phrase, but I did experience adults talking over me…and not responding when I spoke to them.  I saw that happen to my childhood peers as well.

As parents, my wife and I elected to take a different approach:  if one of our children spoke–even when they were infants simply vocalizing–we would recognize their participation in the conversation and acknowledge and include them.  Don’t get me wrong–this can certainly be disruptive to the flow of typical adult conversation, but it was clear that the children understood that we were listening.  They knew that we felt what they had to say was important, too.

When the children grew older (3 & 5 years), we all studied martial arts together as a family.  In martial arts schools, students are typically stratified by age and rank (belt color), and various traditions exist for lower rank students to show respect for higher rank students and instructors.  Our Master’s design was a little different:  every student, regardless of age, rank, or gender, addresses each other with a hearty “yes, Sir!” and a bow to show respect.  Once again, the youngest children–even in their very earliest lessons–experience being on the receiving end of gestures of respect.

The third secret is the hardest.  Once again, this is something parents must learn inside before they can truly teach their children.  That is, that there is something to admire, something important, something of value, in everyone.  To approach interactions with people–all people–with that belief in your heart is the essence of respect.  You can be “nice” to people without truly feeling respect for them…but if you truly believe in your heart that there is genuinely something to admire in each person, then being respectful becomes very straightforward.  Children watch us…and they see everything.

Jeff Gill, MD, MBA is a pediatrician who lives and works in California.