Don't Get No Respect?

May 8, 2009

7 min read


When you walk in the room do your children even notice? Do they contradict you, yell at you or argue with you? The issue is respect -- or, the lack of it.

Eric walks in the front door after a long hard day at work. His son Sammy, is lying on the couch absorbed in his Gameboy. "I'm home", calls Eric. "Hi, Dad," mumbles Sammy, not lifting his eyes from the game.

Eric continues through the living room to see who else is home. His teenage daughter is on the phone in the kitchen. "Hey Judy," Eric says, kissing her on the cheek. "How was the big math test today?" "I'll be off in a while, Dad", says Judy, continuing her conversation with her friend.

What is wrong with this scene? And how does this relate to the issue of respect?

The fifth of the Ten Commandments is "Honor your parents." We want our children to treat us with respect -- not because we are motivated by our own egos or drive for power or control -- but because it is good for the child and his character development.

Of course, respectful kids are much more pleasant to live with. But what are the deeper philosophical reasons for this commandment?

  • Children need to learn gratitude. One primary object of their gratitude should be their parents -- who gave them the gift of life and cared for them since birth. The gratitude is due even if the parents didn't do the best job.

  • Honoring parents helps children see more clearly the debt of gratitude owed to God, who partners with parents in the child's creation (parents provide the body and God provides the soul) and gives parents the means to sustain the children every day.

  • On a social level, respect for authority is one of the pillars that society is built on. Building respect for parents at home enables children to accept and respect authority in school, in the workplace, and in society. Despite the fact that authority today is not always worthy of our respect, we still need to teach children respect -- or we contribute further to the moral decay of society.


How do we teach children to properly respect parents? Ideally we should start at a very young age. Children who get into the habit of speaking and acting disrespectfully have a harder time relearning new ways of relating to their parents and others.

Judaism offers the following basic guidelines:

  • Train your children to do things for you, such as bringing you a glass of water or the phone. In our generation, parents are so busy serving their children that children do not know what it means to serve parents. Of course, you should ask nicely, never demanding. And always show appreciation.

  • Teach your children not to contradict you. If they do contradict you, say gently, "I think that was contradicting me, which isn't allowed. Can you try saying that in a different way, please?" If they have a hard time coming up with the right response, help them.

For example:

Mom: "Dad agrees with me that this party is not a place for you to be."
Child: "He does not! He told me it was okay to go."

Mom: "Excuse me, could you please restate that in a more respectful way?"
Child: (silence)
Mom: "How about: 'Sorry, Mom. Is it possible that I heard Dad say it was okay?'"

  • Corroborating a parent's word is also disrespectful because it sets the child up as the judge of a parent's behavior or word. For example, a parent says a situation should be handled in a specific way, and his son says, "Dad's right. That's the way to deal with this situation." A child should not be in the position of judging the correctness of his parent's decision.

  • Wouldn't you love for your children to drop what they are doing for a short moment when you come home and greet you? It can be done, but it's best to get the kids in the habit when they're young by modeling the behavior you want. If the mother is coming home with the groceries, the father should stand up and say, "Mom's home. Let's go help her with the bags." His eagerness to greet her and help her sets the tone for the children.

    Similarly, if the mother is on the phone when her husband comes home from work, she should say, "Sorry, my husband just walked in. I'll call you later." She models the correct way to greet and honor the father.

  • Most important is that the child sees respect between the father and mother (whether married or divorced). Parents who respect one another, help one another, do not argue in front of the children, and treat one another with sensitivity are much more likely to have children who likewise show the proper respect. This is especially challenging for divorced couples who feel little respect for one another. Keep your anger or differences of opinion as private as possible, and know that the children want and need to respect both parents.

  • At home, the father can help the children honor the mother and vice versa. For example, if Mom is taking a well-deserved nap, Dad can suggest that they all surprise Mom by doing the dishes and straightening up the family room. Of course, Dad also participates in this activity. Or if Mom hears the children speaking disrespectfully to the father, she can say "This is not the proper way to speak to you father."

  • Children learn how to treat us from the way we treat our own parents and in-laws. Too often we expect grandparents to be the babysitters and to help us make life easier. But what are we doing to make their lives more comfortable and pleasant? Do we put out some food and drinks when they come to visit, as we do when important guests come? Do we go outside to greet them when their car pulls up -- or do we yell from the couch, "Come on in, Ma"?

  • Don't allow your children to call you from another room. Teach your children, when they are old enough, to come when they need you. Don't run to them to find out what they want. Remind them a few times, and then if it happens again just don't answer them. They will come to you if they want something badly enough.

  • Allowing children to argue with their parents teaches disrespect. Once you have started arguing with your child, you have already lost. Having a discussion about a difference of opinion is okay, but arguing is not.

Mother: "Please take out the garbage."
Child: "Why do you always pick on me? You never ask Sarah."
Mother: "I do not always pick on you. Your sister Sarah does plenty around the house."
Child: "Oh, she never does anything. I always do everything. I took the garbage out every night this week."

Mother: "Excuse, me. I took it out last night in the rain."

Child: "Well I took it out every other night."

This is an argument and it is not okay. One way to avoid such arguments is by using the broken-record technique (see Lee Canter's "Assertive Discipline For Parents"). Instead of responding to the child's argument, the parent repeats her request like a broken record.

Mother: "Please take out the garbage."
Child: "Why do you always pick on me?"
Mother: "I asked if you would please take out the garbage."
Child: "You never ask Sarah to do anything."
Mother: "That's not the point. If you think things are unfair around here, I am happy to discuss it later. For now, I want the garbage taken out right away, please."


If we want our children to respect us, we need to be respectable people. How?

  • Have principles and moral standards that you live by consistently, and teach by example.

  • Keep your word to your children. Never promise something and fail to deliver.

  • Strive to have refined behavior and speech.

  • Show respect for the dignity of people in general by not gossiping about them.

  • It's hard to respect a wishy-washy parent. Be firm about what you want from your children and what the rules are in your home.

Honoring parents is one of the most important and difficult commandments. It is no wonder that is one of only two mitzvot for which we are promised the reward of long life.

Next Steps