Cultivating Respect


One day a substitute teacher, standing in an unfamiliar classroom, could not figure out why there was much muffled giggling each time she turned to write on the blackboard. Feeling something lightly brush her hair, she ran her hand through her curls and came away with four or five raisins. They had been thrown there by a group of students who had organized a contest: one point if you hit her with a raisin, three if it stuck.

When the regular teacher returned, the incident was rehearsed for her in person by an upset principal and summarized in a note left by a hurt substitute teacher. When the teacher asked the students how such a game had come about, one of them mumbled, “Well, she was boring.”

The teacher looked at the student and asked, “Even if that were true, does that justify treating someone disrespectfully?” Silence followed.

Underlying principles of respect that were once commonplace in society have increasingly given way to unkind behavior. To help our children and youth set aside the many negative examples that bombard them, we must first understand respect, reasons we sometimes act disrespectfully, gospel principles that apply, and ways we can be better teachers and exemplars of respect.

Understanding Respect

There are at least two definitions of respect. The first refers to being polite or civil to those we meet or with whom we interact. This would include being respectful of a teacher. We hope grandchildren will treat grandparents respectfully during visits. We usually treat strangers with polite respect.

Another meaning, however, refers to our feelings toward those who merit respect through honorable living. We admire their commitment or standards. For example, we might respect a sailor who gave up winning a boat race to save a man overboard. On the other hand, we do not respect one who embezzles or another who treats a child harshly in the supermarket. Yet if we were to interact with these people, we would likely treat them with respectful or polite manners, regardless of our feelings about their transgressions. Ultimately, we can treat people respectfully because they are human even if we do not honor or admire their acts.

As parents and leaders, we are to honor both definitions. We want children not only to treat us with respect—using good manners—but also to honor our standards, which we seek to exemplify through Christlike living.

Rationalizing Disrespect

While the gospel teaches us to be respectful toward others without qualification, sometimes we may find ourselves falling into rationalizations about being disrespectful based on their behavior. A person who causes a problem is often seen as warranting disrespectful treatment. Here are two examples:

A man in his 70s came out of a movie theater. He stumbled into a group of teenage boys who might be described as tough guys. One boy spoke, “Hey, old man, watch what you’re doing!” The boy justified his complaint by seeing an old man as unworthy of respect. A girl of perhaps 10 years of age came around the corner of the theater and, with hands on her hips, said, “Hey, he’s not an old man; he’s my gramps! Please don’t talk to him like that!” Incredibly, the boy apologized, and the group moved on.

The second example is of a woman driving a car slowly through a grocery store parking lot. A sedan suddenly pulled in front of her, and she had to brake quickly to avoid hitting it. A bag of groceries on the seat beside her flew forward, and its contents scattered, including a dozen eggs, some of which hit the windshield and oozed down to the floor. Because her window was down, it was a simple matter to yell at the careless driver.

The sedan driver stopped and got out right in the middle of the parking lot. As she approached the car, the offended lady was preparing a barrage of accusations when she recognized the woman. It was her favorite aunt! She quickly swallowed her angry words.

If we could ask either the teenage boy or the lady with the broken eggs why they were about to treat these anonymous people unkindly, it is likely they would have cited these people’s behavior as their excuse. In other words, if others would behave differently, we would not have to behave badly. This kind of thinking shifts responsibility for our behavior to others. It makes us think that our disrespectful acts are someone else’s fault.

Children pick this up quickly. When they are impolite, they often justify their disrespect with the excuse that the other person does not deserve good treatment. “I would respect my father if he weren’t so impatient,” or, “I can’t respect that teacher because he yells all the time.”

Respect and Brotherly Love

Respect is an expression of our sense of universal brotherhood or sisterhood—a testimony of our membership in the human family. It acknowledges our common humanity and shows our reverence for children of God. The gospel teaches us that we are to hold the same esteem for others that we hold for ourselves (see D&C 38:25; Matt. 7:12). Acting disrespectfully suggests we do not esteem the other person as ourselves.

For example, prejudice is a result of disrespect for our fellowman. We cannot participate in attitudes of prejudice without distancing ourselves from others. True respect, then, comes as we develop our ability to love our brothers and sisters as ourselves.

Gossip, another everyday form of disrespect, is incompatible with love. What we say about people in their absence should be what we would say to them, with love, if they were present.

Empathy. Feeling empathy for others is a symptom of respectful behavior, while feeling unsympathetic is a symptom of disrespectful acts. A fourth-grade student, Mark, befriended a new boy in school who had a limp. One day, coming in from recess, Mark found his new friend being teased by a group of boys from Mark’s soccer team. Mark blurted out, “Leave him alone!” The boys turned their teasing on Mark for standing up for the new boy. While Mark had felt empathy for the new boy, his soccer friends had not. To ridicule others is to deny our brotherhood and sisterhood.

Care. Respect is also synonymous with care and concern. We respect those we care about. Sometimes we excuse our disrespect, even for people we care about, by holding against them their lack of caring or concern for us. After a lecture I once gave to a California school group, a 15-year-old girl approached me and said: “You know that story you told? You must have been talking about my father. And I don’t see how you could expect me to respect a man like him!”

“Tell me about your father,” I replied.

“Well, he never pays any attention to what I do; he doesn’t come to my school activities [she was in a play]; he never came to see my science fair projects, even when I won a prize; and when Mother is sick and I fix supper, he just says, ‘Why is dinner late?’ How can I respect a man like him?”

Her message was clear: Dad doesn’t care about me, so why should I care about him? I looked at her. “Tell me what life is like for a man who doesn’t see that he has a daughter who does her best, contributes to school activities, tries to do well in science, and, when her mother is sick, leaps into the kitchen to help without being asked.”

Her countenance changed; a faraway look came into her eyes. “You know,” she finally said, “he is the loneliest man in the world. I don’t think he has any friends.” With that, she began to see her father with compassion, even a degree of sorrow, for his circumstances. To feel compassion, she’d had to give up her attitude of resentment and disrespect. She had transformed herself and no longer used his bad behavior to justify her own poor behavior. In scriptural language, she had gone from nursing feelings of contention to no longer having “a mind to injure one another” (Mosiah 4:13). And it came without any change on her father’s part.

Teaching Respect

To promote greater respect within families and youth groups, we must teach correct principles and share good examples. Parents can use personal examples (I recall a time I was unkind to my math teacher), tell stories (such as the time one team gave a standing ovation to a player on the opposing team), ask thought-provoking questions (How could the class have helped Mrs. Johnson when she fell?), or pose problem situations (If you were a student in the raisin-throwing class, what might you have done?).

Parents can also comment on circumstances reported in the media. While there are many examples of disrespect, there are also stories of those who have shown consideration for others, such as the Olympic gold-medal winner who raised the arm of the silver medalist many thought should have won.

Perhaps more than any other means, however, parental example is a child’s best teacher of respect. A father who joined the Church in a Third World country and then moved to a more economically advanced nation shared with his children his love of his native land—a land they had never seen. Then his eldest son was called to be a missionary to his father’s homeland. The father rejoiced, but after seeing him off, he worried about something he had not thought of before. His country was a land of poverty, of stark living conditions, and of little education. His son had been reared in a land of plenty. What if his boy, upon arrival in the country his father loved, was disillusioned by the pitiful circumstances he found?

A year into the mission, the father received a particularly touching letter from his missionary son: “Dear Dad, my mission is going all too fast. But as I walk down the streets, I feel good. I love this place! I love the people. Dad, I feel so close to the people here! I feel as if these people were my people.”

His father wept. At the time, his son was serving in his grandfather’s birthplace. They were his people.

Respect is an expression of Christlike living. It is closely linked to all other qualities we are counseled to cultivate: patience, long-suffering, brotherly kindness, and love unfeigned. It is a feature of selfless service and humble repentance. It is essential when healing or dissolving hostilities. Respect for others shows reverence for God and for His creations. Through showing respect, we truly feel more a part of the human family and recognize and honor our common divine parentage.

Teaching Children Respect

President Joseph F. Smith

“Teach your children to respect their neighbors. Teach your children to respect their bishops and the teachers that come to their homes to teach them. Teach your children to respect old age, gray hairs, and feeble frames. Teach them to venerate and to hold in honorable remembrance their parents, and to help all those who are helpless and needy. … Teach your children that when they go to school they should honor their teachers in that which is true and honest, in that which is manly and womanly, and worth while. … Teach your children to honor the law of God and the law of the state and the law of our country. Teach them to respect and hold in honor those who are chosen by the people to stand at their head and execute justice and administer the law. Teach them to be loyal to their country, loyal to righteousness and uprightness and honor, and thereby they will grow up to be men and women choice above all the men and women of the world.” President Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. (1939), 293.

More on this topic: See Harold G. Hillam, “Future Leaders,”Ensign, May 2000, 10–11; Darnell Zollinger, “I Have a Question: How can I best teach my children to have respect for others, including those placed in authority over them?” Ensign, June 1974, 56–57. Visit www.lds.org or see Church magazines on CD.

Let’s Talk about It

Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:

  1. 1.

    How do we know when we are being treated respectfully? disrespectfully?

  2. 2.

    Do we sometimes rationalize our treatment of others because of their behavior? How can we avoid this?

  3. 3.

    Why does developing love for others lead to respectful treatment of them?

  4. 4.

    Are you aware of someone who is being treated disrespectfully? How might you show respect to that person?

[photos] Photography by Welden C. Andersen; posed by models

Terrance D. Olson is a member of the Sharon Third Ward, Orem Utah Sharon Stake.