Disrespectful children and authentic self-esteem

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When parents tell us they are unhappy about their children’s disrespectful behavior, we can think of several things that contribute to the problem.

First, disrespect seems to be a feature of the culture we live in. Facebook, movies and TV often show children behaving in snarky, sassy ways that get big laughs – so of course our young children imitate what they see and hear.

When they’re little, we may think that’s cute, but when they’re older it’s not funny at all.

Second, the emphasis on promoting “self-esteem” has not turned out to be as helpful as we might have hoped. In some cases it has produced children who expect to be complimented or win a trophy every time they do anything – and feel entitled to have everything their way at all times.

Of course, it’s good that parents listen to their children and respect their wishes, but it is not helpful to let them take over or be the boss.

Some parents give their children too much power, making the kids the center of attention and catering to their every whim. These children are not really happy having so much power; actually, it may be a little frightening and they crave the reassurance of strong, confident parents who make them children feel protected and safe with expectations of thoughtful, caring behavior.

A third reason we feel children are not respectful is that we have not shown them we expect respectful behavior from them.

We have allowed them to be self-centered and babyish because we have misjudged their ability to behave in a more grown-up way, giving them the message that we don’t think they are capable of more mature, thoughtful behavior.

What to do, what to do

When we allow them to continue to behave in thoughtless, demanding ways, they are confused and unhappy because they can sense that people don’t like them very much or want to have them around.

Don’t deprive children of the pride they will feel when they know how to behave – when they sense that people like them and enjoy their company.

If you are a parent who recognizes that things have gotten out of hand but are afraid to insist on more respectful behavior because your child may not like you anymore, we understand that fear.

Once again, let us reassure you that children may not appear to want to relinquish some of their control; but, in fact, they do.

A family meeting might be in order, in which the parents announce some new rules and expectations. “We know that you are big enough now to act more grown-up and polite,” you might say. Then stick with it; say no, and don’t cave in to whining and tears. It will be tough the first few times, but the kids will soon catch on and actually be relieved that their parents are in charge.

We also want to remind you of the importance of sending straight-forward, genuine messages to kids. When you are unhappy with your child’s behavior, it’s OK to be clear about it rather than trying to hide it for fear he won’t like you.

Your disapproving body language, which kids certainly pick up, needs to be matched with clear and truthful words. Not in public so that it humiliates the child, but later when you and the child are together, you can say, “How do you think Mrs. Jones felt when you announced at lunch that you hate chunky peanut butter and threw the sandwich on the floor? I was very unhappy with your behavior and I’m sure she was surprised and probably angry.”

Then talk about what he could have done that would have been more respectful, such as eating everything else that was offered and just leaving the sandwich without making a fuss.

Setting the example

Of course, the best way to instill respectful behavior in children is to model it in our behavior toward them and the people we meet in our daily lives.

Think of the lesson you are teaching your child when, during your conversation with her, you ignore a phone call or text message, saying “I’ll get that later when we’re finished talking;” when you give the mailman a cool drink on a hot day; when you are patient with a harried sales clerk; when you hold the door for the person coming after you. Think of how you want your child to behave and then show it.

Start early to instill respectful behavior in your children. This is the way genuine self-esteem develops: from knowing that you are competent and can look after yourself; knowing that you are a helpful, contributing member of a family; that you can notice and have feelings for others.

This is the self-esteem that will make your child a happy, successful, respectful and respected person.


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