Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Respect Starts At Home

March 5, 2001

Almost daily we read or hear about the rising tide of teen-age violence, alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, weapons in schools and other anti-social behavior. Concerned civic and religious leaders worry about the decline of traditional moral values in our homes and communities.

As parents, we wonder what we need to do to teach our children values like honesty, kindness, responsibility and fairness - values that will serve them well in a society that is losing touch with basic values. Psychologist William Damon in his book, "The Moral Child," describes the role of parents in developing cooperation, respect for authority and social responsibility in their children.

Respect for authority. Parents shape their children's feelings of obligation to obey family rules through rewards and sanctions. Family rules are extensions of society's rules. According to Damon, "The child's respect for authority is the single most important moral legacy that comes out of a child's relation with his parents."

The affectionate relationship parents have with their children is an inducement for cooperation. The more secure or attached children are to their parents, the more likely they are to comply with family rules.

Teaching respect. Effective parents combine firm direction and control while maintaining a warm and supportive relationship with their children. Their communications are honest and direct. They expect a lot. Children are confronted about actions that are harmful to others. This is done in a manner that is not overly harsh or intrusive. Parents openly express their own emotional response to the child's misdeeds and explain the reasons for their reactions.

They consistently expect children to bear their share of personal and family responsibilities and prohibit other activities deemed harmful. Parents demonstrate their commitment to social norms and family values by being consistent in their follow-through. They teach their children to obey legitimate authority and authority figures in their lives.

Successful parents provide control of their children's behavior through minimal force while providing them with information through respectful persuasion, argument and reasoning.

The goal of discipline is to help the child act properly and come away from the event remembering why it was important to do so. As children grow older, they come to see authority as something mutually agreed on that serves everyone's interests.

Three basic rules of respect. I often see situations where parents, through their own lack of emotional control or ineffective discipline, have children who are verbally and physically aggressive to their siblings. They themselves are confronted with back talk that goes well beyond what should be allowed in a home. I teach these three basic rules of respect that apply both to the parents acting with each other and with their children, and to the children acting toward parents or with their siblings.

1. No touching in anger. This establishes a clear boundary to the limit of anger. By no touching, I mean no hitting, shoving, tripping, pushing, flipping, or any variation of physical contact, harassment or intrusion.

2. No destroying property, either your own or anybody else’s. This means no fists through walls, slamming doors, no throwing, breaking, ripping or damaging anything personal or valuable.

3. No labeling, name calling, profanity, obscenities, or verbal assault on someone’s personality, character or self-esteem. Family members can express their displeasure without resorting to personal verbal attacks. The prohibited expressions need to be specifically taught as a taboo in disagreements or anger outbursts.

These rules need matter-of-fact consequences that are consistently enforced. End of story. Damon states, "There is no more effective facilitator of moral development than fostering children's willingness to take responsibility for good and bad deeds."

Beyond respect. These rules are just the beginnings of respect. Additional rules and expectations around common courtesy, manners and mutual consideration are necessary to refine respect into habits that help children with their peers and other adult authority figures in their lives.

Children need opportunities for service in and out of the home. Affluence makes it too easy for children and teens to concentrate on their own entertainment, education and self-development without a balance of social responsibility and concern for others. Overcoming self-centeredness is a lifelong project but especially important as teens get ready for adult life.

Parental openness. Damon also suggests that parents need to be open about their emotions and responses to moral dilemmas in adult lives. This means sharing emotions, describing them clearly and answering questions about them candidly. Parents who show and identify their own emotions have children who are more emotional and responsive to others.

Children need to learn how respected adults in their lives manage their moral feelings and decisions. By watching how parents handle guilt, anger, fear or uncertainty children learn how to deal with their own feelings. Not enough parents explain the their own dilemmas and actions to their children.

Parental example. Parents who are empathic and are good at taking the perspective of others have same sex children who show concern for others. Girls learn to show sympathy for others when emotions, either positive or mildly negative - sadness, not anger - are expressed. Boys need to be taught to express their feelings and to take positive action steps when dealing with strong emotions instead of either stuffing their feelings or exploding in frustration.

Children who are raised in homes where anger is frequently expressed experience personal distress and anxiety at another's problem. They are not as likely to be helpful.

Respect begins at home. It begins with parents.