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Child Development

Why Kids Don't Show “Respect”

Even if they do get the concept, shouldn't it be earned?

Key points

  • Respect is an abstract concept that doesn't have much meaning for a young child.
  • Being more concrete and specific about the behaviors you expect from a child will make them more likely to comply.
  • Respect also has to be earned; it can't be forced.

In addition to practicing therapy with child clients, I’ve had the opportunity to provide broader social-emotional support to entire school communities. For example, in assessing a school’s areas for growth, I may notice students’ need for programs in areas such as conflict resolution, harm reduction, stress management, or a host of other topics. In the assessment process, I’ve observed some repeating patterns in why adults fail in their efforts to communicate with children.

One of the most common mistakes I see is when behavioral expectations are explained to kids in terms of a concept like “respect.” Telling kids to be respectful often has the exact opposite effect. But the fault here lies with adults who don’t understand how children’s brains work.

Before I go into the psychological details, some examples of behavior gone awry will be helpful. Once, I observed an elementary school classroom in which the teacher asked each student to say something “nice” about a particular child. When the turn fell to one boy in the class, he said, “Seeing you always puts a smile on my face. You make me feel great.” He went on to say in a matter-of-fact manner, “You’re such a loser that just thinking about you makes me feel better about myself.”

Another time, I witnessed a young student being rough with another child on the playground. The recess monitor pulled the student aside and had a long talk with him about being “helpful.” The student somberly indicated that he understood and would comply. When the monitor dismissed him, he immediately tackled the same child as before and began pummeling him. When the monitor asked the student in exasperation why he would turn right around and resume his aggression, he replied sincerely, “I don’t understand. You told me to be helpful. Fighting makes people tougher, so I’m helping him out.” These are just a couple of examples of common problems.

The point is that abstract concepts like respect have no meaning to kids.

Until about age 12, our thought process is largely concrete (Stanborough, 2019). Our brains simply haven’t developed the neurological complexity to be able to fully grasp ethereal concepts. If you try talking to a young child about an idea like dignity, for example, you’re not likely to get very far. Perhaps at the most, you’d get a regurgitated response using other words the child doesn’t really understand.

However, you can accomplish a communication goal if you tell a child something black and white, like, “When you stick your tongue out at the other kids, it makes them feel bad. So we have a rule: Our tongues stay in our mouths.” The child is not capable of understanding what it means to undermine someone’s sense of personal dignity or self-worth because those concepts are not concrete. But “keep your tongue in your mouth” is crystal clear.

In the example above about the “helpful” child on the playground, the recess monitor may have been able to prevent the child’s aggression if they had used concrete language. Instead of telling him to be helpful and respectful, they could have said, “Your body needs to avoid other people’s bodies.”

Incidentally, I’d argue that the same can be said for adults. For example, some experts suggest that adult congregations like therapy groups or graduate classes develop their own sets of ground rules. But in my experience, they invariably select words like respect, support, etc. And inevitably, conflict ensues because we all carry within us our own widely disparate interpretations of these concepts. All that can happen after that point is a power struggle over whose interpretation is the “correct” one.

In some contexts, like the "Godfather" movies, respect seems to mean nothing more than fear. On more than one occasion, I have seen a victim stand up to their abuser only to be labeled the “disrespectful” one in the family. In other contexts, respect might be understood to mean compliance with an arbitrary social expectation.

One widely relatable description I can offer, while I am neither advocating nor condemning the practice, is the tradition of taking one’s hat off during the national anthem. It’s not at all clear to me why displaying one’s hair is respectful but covering it is not. (I think I could make a good case for the opposite). In this case, respect is simply defined as the performance of an act in itself.

I must confess I myself remain confused about what respect is. Once I had a supervisor who was openly and admittedly violating some workplace policies, which impacted my team. After several attempts at diplomacy (another abstraction), I candidly expressed to the supervisor that they must follow the policies as written. While never denying the violation, the supervisor said it was “disrespectful” to tell them what they “must” do. They used the ambiguity of the term to make the situation about me and my alleged lapse of etiquette rather than the serious policy breaches they were committing.

In my view, respect—whatever it is—is earned.

And it’s earned through practices such as applying empathy and reducing the suffering of others. Even the respect we’re presumed to have for our parents is predicated on the promise that they will live with us, provide for us, and encourage us throughout our childhood. When adults fall short on these promises to children, they have forfeited any respect due to them. But one way we can indeed respect our children is to understand their developmental limitations and communicate rules and expectations to them in a way they can understand.

LinkedIn/Facebook image: MIA Studio/Shutterstock


Stanborough, R. J. (2019, September 5). Understanding abstract thinking: Development, benefits & more. Healthline. Retrieved November 26, 2022, from