It is never too early to start teaching your child about respect. Children will naturally adopt your interaction style while you interact with them and while they watch you interacting with others. There are several different styles of teaching and not all styles are appropriate at all ages.
All organisms, from amoebas right up to humans learn to do the things that make them feel good and to avoid the things that make them feel bad. You can use this basic principle to teach your child respect from about 18 months old. Once they start to understand that they have an impact on the world, they can learn to control their behaviors to some extent. If, when learning to talk, they say things that you don’t like you can just ignore the words. On the other hand, the first time your baby says “please”, you should be all over it. Reward the behaviors that you want to increase.
Similarly, as soon as children start to recognize relationships, they will start to imitate those relationships. This starts around the age of two. You should only model respectful interactions when a child is observing you.
Actively teaching your child about issues of respect will come later. Little children are egocentric. It’s not a bad thing; it’s just where they are in their development. It is impossible for a child to take another person’s perspective until they are about 4 years old. So, it doesn’t make sense to try to talk to them about how another person feels. As far as little kids are concerned, everybody else knows what they know and feels what they feel.
You can do some experiments to see if your child is ready to start taking another person’s perspective. If your child plays with dolls, you can have the child show a doll a box of candy and show the doll that there is candy inside the box. Then take the doll out of the room and tell your child to take the candy out of the box and hide it. When you bring the doll back in, ask the child where the doll thinks the candy is.
This is a revealing little experiment. Once kids are able to take the perspective of others, they will know that the doll will look for the candy in the candy box. Littler kids who are still completely egocentric will think the doll knows where the candy is. The point is that the child will not understand that the doll can have knowledge or opinions different from the child’s own.
Once your child can pass this test (that means he knows that the doll won’t know where the candy is hidden), it is time to start talking about the feelings, opinions, and ideas of others. Prior to that, it will only confuse the child and, probably, frustrate you.
Between the ages of 4 and 7 are good years to stress the perspective of others. Because it is something the child is just getting a handle on, it will be a fun game. At the same time, it will be an excellent learning tool.
After your child is over the age of 7, their mental abilities change again. They become capable of organized and logical thought. At this age, the child should be held accountable for their actions. They will also be able to have real conversations about the harder issues of respect. Talk to your child about respect. Ask them questions like “does everybody deserve respect?” After watching movies, talk about instances of respect, self-respect and disrespect and the other issues that they might have noticed in the movies.
Having children aware of issues of respect is one way to encourage your children to be respectful. However, talking about issues of respect before a child understands perspective is jumping the gun. Try to be in tune with your child’s readiness to understand concepts, and work with them at their level.