Modeling Behavior is the Best Teacher: Respect Must Be Mutual

hand in hand

First published with audio version on

Children aren’t born with social skills. Children don’t need to learn how to learn but they do need guidance in socializing. They may naturally respect you as their significant caregiver, they may intuitively know about dignity, but they don’t know yet how to express this respect with words and deeds.

Socially respected behavior is learned behavior and some of it (for instance, table manners) varies by culture, faith or family. When we help children become aware of the unwritten rules of common courtesy, we give them valuable tools that help them navigate through life.

Many times, whenever necessary, kindly inform children that a person who shows respect to others through kindness is much more likely to be welcome anywhere they go. Social skills will help children make friends, mediate conflicts, adapt to various environments, and talk with teachers and other adults. Knowing about politeness helps them ask for what they need and graciously say no to unwanted offers. In Montessori terms, this area of learning for a child is called Grace and Courtesy.

When children feel emotionally safe, they want to learn what others perceive as respectful and how they would like to be treated. They want to learn from you how to be friends, how to be a part of a peer group, or how to be included in a table conversation.

They are relieved to learn that it is okay to ask for what they need, and that there are certain ways of asking that work better than others. This knowledge helps children find their place in their own community and having good practice with one culture’s common courtesy sets the stage for learning about other cultures.


In any relevant moment, give children concrete examples of respectful everyday interaction. Let them know: this is how you can ask for something; this is how you can let me know when you are unhappy with something; this is how you can respond if an adult asks how you are doing today.

Modeling is the best teacher, so use kind words with your child and everyone else:

  • May I…? 
  • Can I …? 
  • Please..? 
  • Excuse me… 
  • Thank you. 
  • Would you be willing to…? 
  • Would you be so kind…?

All of these phrases are like keys to open doors and help establish friendly rapport between people.

Rather than the conventional way of requiring all requests to be accompanied by “please” and “thank you”, try more open-ended and authentic ways to encourage polite interactions. For example, “Hmm, that doesn’t feel good to me. Can you think of a different way to ask?” Children become quite skilled at asking for what they need with respect when reminded in this way, rather than having politeness imposed upon them by force, which of course, is not polite.

There are also many non-verbal ways of showing respect that need to be brought to a child’s awareness: listening to someone without interrupting; making eye contact (or sometimes being okay with not making eye contact); smiling, opening the door for someone; asking if a person would like to be hugged or touched; and whatever else feels important to you and your family.


Children learn courtesy over time through direct (and polite) instruction, by imitating their role models, and by experiencing how it feels to be respected.

  1. Through direct (and polite) instruction

    Instead of scolding when a child seems to be (or is) disrespectful, we can make them aware of their behavior. How? Help them reflect on what happened and then give clear guidance on what could be done differently next time. 
    For example, “When you ask me for help with angry words, it doesn’t feel good to me. Here is how you can ask me in a gentler way: Can you help me, please?”

  2. By imitating their role models

    Children perceive how we treat ourselves and others, and they consciously and unconsciously internalize the same behaviors. We show respect to ourselves through self-care and positive self-talk when we make mistakes, and we show respect to others by relating to them with kindness and patience. 
    For example, “Oh no! I left the car window down and the seat is soaked! Aw, that is so frustrating.” Disappointment and then searching for a solution are authentic reactions for anyone to have. “Ugh! What I can do about this?! I’ll go get a towel to keep my body dry. I wish I had remembered to roll the window back up! Well, it will dry. It’s okay. Next time I’ll remember!” 
    This may not feel natural for those of us who have been conditioned to react negatively to our mistakes, but it is crucial to model positive self-talk for children in normal day-to-day life.

  3. By experiencing how it feels to be respected: 

    Certainly, the most effective and lasting way to teach children respect is to respect them deeply. Our respect for children and adults goes hand in hand with our own self-worth, and our unwavering belief that we all have the capacity to live respectfully, side-by-side, even if we don’t agree on everything.


Avoid speaking about a child as if they weren’t present—children can hear you. This all-too-common act makes them feel invisible and excluded and often leads to “acting out.”

Keep your promises, or don’t make promises.

Avoid asking children to make and keep promises. Most children are developmentally incapable of doing so and asking them to invariably sets them up for failure.

Share information with children: For example, while traveling or running errands, share where you are at the moment, where you are going next, and what the child can expect once you arrive.

TRY THIS: “Stop, rewind, take two!”

It is completely okay to make sure your child gets a chance to learn the respectful behavior you deserve. We don’t do children a favor by letting them be rude to us. This doesn’t need to happen using authoritarian, threatening, or judgmental methods. Teaching polite behavior can be done in friendly, playful ways.

I have observed several adults who are great with children using the following phrase, when they feel a child behaved disrespectfully towards them: “Stop, rewind, take two!”

This phrase inspired by filmmaking jargon was their loving, playful way of letting a child know that something didn’t go very well and just like filming a movie, they offer the child another chance to repeat the same scene.

For instance, let’s say a child swiftly grabs a marker from your hand without asking if you are done with it. Instead of scolding, “Don’t do that!” we might say “Stop, rewind, take two! I would prefer you to ask me first, saying something like, ‘May I have your marker, please?’ Or ‘Are you done with your marker and could I have it now, please?’”

If this happens repeatedly, you can kindly say something like, “Ehm, excuse me. Do you remember what I’d really prefer you to do and say, if you need something that I am holding? Thank you for being so kind.”

We must remind ourselves constantly that children are learning by example, and that none of their disrespectful behavior need be taken personally. Rather, they are truly asking for respectful examples and alternatives through every mistake they make, so they can learn “the rules of the game,” and how to thrive in their lives as individuals and within their communities.

Copyright 2020 by Carmen Viktoria Gamper. All Rights Reserved. 
Reprinted with permission: New Learning Culture Publishing 

Article Source

Flow To Learn: A 52-Week Parent’s Guide to Recognize & Support Your Child’s Flow State – the Optimal Condition for Learning
by Carmen Viktoria Gamper

Flow To Learn an uplifting, illustrated parent’s guide offering 52 weeks filled with practical suggestions and compassionate insights to help your child through the ups and downs of childhood.

Using practical, evidence-based tools from the fields of child development, psychology, and child-centered education, parents are guided step-by-step through the creation of simple hands-on activity stations that boost children’s love for learning.

For more info and/or to order this book, click here

Scroll to Top