By Soribel Martinez, LCSW
Many parenting difficulties are millennia old: sleeping through the night, potty training, and so much more. Helping children to respect and accept differences is no different.
Maybe you want your kids to learn how to respect their sibling so you can cut down on arguments within your house. Teaching your children how to accept the many differences they will encounter in our diverse world is probably at the top of your list as well. But it may seem like an impossible task as you do damage control on the playground or at preschool.
The truth is that being respectful and accepting of those who are different than us is an important life skill. Children naturally go through developmental stages when their behavior may be anything but respectful. With time, however, strategies such as the following will help your child grow into a kind, thoughtful adult.
1. Be Respectful
So much of what children learn is absorbed naturally by observing and imitating their environment. Like it or not, this includes the behavior and attitudes of their parents. So it can be helpful for you to pay attention to how respectful you really are toward those around you.
Do you honk and yell at other drivers? Are you demanding and insulting toward wait staff who are slow or make a mistake on your order?
You can take this a step further by looking at how you treat your kids. Do you frequently yell at them or belittle them? Are you patient with them? No one is perfect, but it’s hard to teach respect if your kids don’t see it from you. This is a good place to start.
2. Use Positive Reinforcement
Child therapists and developmental psychologists have come to understand that positive reinforcement is a more effective method of teaching your children than punitive measures.
Positive reinforcement means that you pay more attention to your child’s positive behavior than their negative behavior. Really notice when they’re nice to their siblings or share a toy at the park. Point out to them when you see they stopped to help a younger child at the playground.
Heap on the praise at these times. Your child will feel great and will begin to internalize the value of being respectful.
3. Teach Empathy
Empathy is a keystone of healthy human interactions. When someone is empathetic, they’re able to imagine how they would feel in someone else’s situation. This is true even if they don’t agree with that person’s opinion or decision.
You can make a conscious decision to teach your children to be empathetic toward others. This doesn’t have to be forceful, but can be done gently and over time.
As with modeling respect yourself, you can teach your children empathy in part by treating them with empathy. Notice when they’re feeling sad or upset about something. Give them a hug and ask how you can help. Reassure them.
With time, your child will develop their own sense of empathy. Encourage them to use it in situations where they are tempted to make fun of someone who is different. Sibling arguments are another good place to encourage this practice.
4. Expand Their World
Our world is a vibrant place, exploding with rich cultures and groups. A natural way to help your kids be respectful toward differences is to expand your family’s world. Take the time to introduce them to other cultures. Build friendships with people who are different from you, whether that be their race, country of origin, educational level, or something else.
If you can, travel to places where you can be immersed more fully in these differences. Your kids will thank you someday.
If you try these methods but find that your child continues to engage in harmful or oppositional behavior, please consider reaching out to my office. As an experienced therapist, we can evaluate your child and help address any concerns. Please help us to learn more.
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Soribel Martinez, LCSW, CEO of SMPsychotherapy