LAST week I shared how some teachers and parents disrespect students in school and yet expect to be respected by students. It has been said that respect is earned. I believe that many of today's children lack an understanding of respect because their experiences with this essential character trait have been minimal. These children's experiences both at school and home don't give them opportunities to build character. They are rarely around people who display respect and if they aren't treated as though they are valued and worthwhile individuals, how can they possibly "catch the behaviour?" Remember, children learn new character by watching others do them well.
It is worth noting that the first five to seven years of child development are crucial to an individual's character building. Home is the primary place where character traits and values must be taught. Family is the first influence that a growing child has. This influence is in all areas of child development including character. Hence, if the character displayed to the child is inappropriate, that is what the child will get because children learn by observation and imitation.
Some children do not know what respect is because they come from homes that are abusive, homes where fights, insults and put-downs are the order of the day. So schools in this case also become significant institutions where children can be taught character traits. Educators need to be aware of the power they have because for some children, school may be the only place where they learn character building. So what can parents and educators do to accentuate respect in children?
Parents and educators need to model respectful statements. I am saying model, because children are watching what we are doing. You may wish to say respectful statements such as, "Thank you Wonani for cooking supper for us, we really appreciate it" or "Sorry Mtendere, I didn't mean to hurt you." Children should be given an opportunity to hear what respect sounds like. Let's avoid put-downs or name-calling when children make mistakes; that's disrespectful behaviour.
It is also important to let children practice respectful behaviour. Practice will enable them to develop the appropriate skills. For example, if a child hurts or bullies another, don't ignore that. Help the child to know that such behaviour is unacceptable and let him to think of ways of showing respect instead. The child can say sorry.
Today children are exposed to television programming that emphasises sarcasm, put-downs, disrespect and ridicule. Parents and educators should build awareness of respectful language to counter what the children are exposed to. If not the negative language will become loud and that is what we shall see in their character. So replace disrespect with statements such as, "Thank you for sharing your toys", "Are you okay?" or "Thank you."
As parents and educators we also need to accentuate respect in our areas of influence. Establish rules or commands that the children must follow. For example, tell them that in your class no one can talk hurtfully of themselves or others or joke at the expense of another.
We also need to reinforce respectful behaviour that we want to see repeated and also label appropriate respectful behaviour. Some children need help to distinguish between appropriate language and destructive language. They may have said disrespectful critical remarks so often they've conditioned themselves to say the negative. It is helpful to label appropriate and inappropriate language for students. For example if a child says, "Hey, you look pretty in that dress", remind the child that that is a compliment. You label the statement as appropriate. The same must be done if a child uses a destructive statement. Tell them that was disrespectful or a put-down.
It's not too late to teach our children appropriate behaviour. We can help them learn more respectful behaviour by slowly replacing their disrespectful habits. We all know that changing habits takes time and effort. Many children have been locked into saying and displaying disrespectful words and behaviours for years. We certainly can't expect overnight success. Be patient, don't despair and never give up! Just be consistent in the way you draw awareness to disrespect, labelling it and teaching skills to defuse it. I wish you the best.