Teaching Children to Be Respectful in a Coarsened Culture

How can I teach my children good manners? It seems etiquette has become a thing of the past, both for children and adults. This is something I'm determined to instill in my kids, but I can see that it won't be easy. How do I teach them to treat people respectfully when the rest of the culture seems to care less and less for the feelings, sensibilities, and rights of others?

Manners and etiquette are often conceived of in terms of conformity to a set of social mores or culturally defined standards of “correct” behavior (think “Emily Post” or “Miss Manners”). From this point of view, they’re an aspect of man-made custom and tradition. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. It all depends on the extent to which the culture in question is founded upon and consistent with biblical values and sensibilities.

Modern-day western culture is drifting away from its Christian roots at an increasingly rapid rate. This is at least part of the problem you’re facing. The problem isn’t new, nor is it unique to the 21 st century. Genuine Christianity has always been counter-cultural. Real disciples of Jesus have always been out of step with the rest of society in some important ways. Christ Himself frequently came into conflict with the human traditions of His day. If we sincerely want to follow Him we should expect to find ourselves swimming upstream against societal expectations and norms on a pretty regular basis.

With this in mind, let’s go back to square one and ask ourselves a fundamental question: is there a way to define “good manners” from a purely Christian perspective? The answer is yes. You said it yourself: “How do I teach my kids to treat other people respectfully?” For the believer, it all comes down to the Golden Rule and the Great Commandment: “Just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise” (Luke 6:31; see also Matthew 7:12); “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). The apostle Paul says it this way: “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).

It’s love that shows us how to treat other people. This is the key to the Christian understanding of manners. Remember, we’re talking here about agape love, not the shifting sands of fashion or changing social mores. That’s the polestar of Christian behavior. What does this love look like in action? The details are spelled out for us in a hundred different scriptural passages.

Love is patient and kind. It “does not behave rudely,” nor is it self-seeking (I Corinthians 13:4, 5). Love manifests itself as respect and courtesy towards others. It’s characterized by genuine affection and an eagerness to give first place to the needs and concerns of one’s neighbor (Romans 12:10). It looks out not only for its own interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:4). It steers clear of anything that might offend or cause someone else to stumble (Romans 14:21). Love is humble and marked by an attitude of gratitude in every situation (Ephesians 5:20; Colossians 3:15). Perhaps most importantly, love is not a “respecter of persons.” It shuns partiality and shows equal respect for all, rich and poor, high and low, powerful and weak, influential and obscure (James 2:1-9).

Practically speaking, this love and respect can find expression in an almost unlimited number of ways. Everything depends on the situation and the attitudes and expectations of the person on the receiving end. If grandma expects Johnny to keep his napkin in his lap and his elbows off the dinner table, Johnny should be taught to comply. If your neighbor is in the habit of asking visitors to remove their shoes before coming inside, you and your family ought to abide by his wishes. If family friends are accustomed to being formally addressed as “Mr. and Mrs. Jones,” make sure your kids are aware of and honor their preferences. On the other hand, if the gym coach at school insists that the students call him “Bill,” make it clear that his desires are to be respected. There is nothing absolute or sacred about “rules” of this kind, but that doesn’t mean that we’re free to dismiss them. It’s all a matter of putting other people first.

How do you teach your kids to implement these principles in everyday life? The answer is simple. You model this kind of behavior yourself. Kindness, good manners, and respectful treatment of others are best instilled in young minds by means of consistent example. They are caught rather than taught. If you want your kids to be Christ-like in their interactions with the people around them, be Christ-like yourself. And remember that you can’t begin too early, and that the best place to start is at home.

If you think it might be helpful to discuss these issues at greater length, call us. Our staff counselors would consider it a privilege to speak with you over the phone.


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