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Sometimes parents of older children and teens ask me how to get their child to treat them respectfully. They complain that they don’t get any respect from their kids.

The answer is that we get what we ask for. Frequently we ask for the wrong thing. We ask for obedience when what we want is respect.

So what’s the difference? Obedience is based in a hierarchy. Obedience says, “I am more powerful than you so I get to tell you what to do and you have to do it.” That’s what being obedient means and it can work for a while. It works just as long as a child believes it.

Respect involves no hierarchy. It’s level. Respect says, “I am a human being worthy of being treated humanely and you are too.” As long as you hold up your part of the equation and act in ways that demonstrate your humanity, you deserve respect. This works forever.

Children question obedience the moment they realize you don’t know everything they’re thinking. The four-year-old who declares, “You’re not the boss of me,” understands that she is an independent person in her own right, not a possession of her parents. She recognizes her equality with Mom and Dad, not in skill and ability and understanding, but in humanity. She demands respect because she knows she deserves it. She accords her parents respect because they’ve let her know that they deserve it too.

Organizing a family around the principle of obedience is easy. Mom and Dad lay down the rules, establish a system of rewards and punishments, and just put everything in place. It seems simple. Organizing a family around the principle of mutual respect requires a bit more work.

Start early. Those parents who ask me about respect when their children are 10 or 12 are coming at the problem late. Children are never too young to understand that you deserve respect and that they deserve respect too. (They’re never too old either but it may take a while to undo old habits.)

Be intentional. Respect isn’t arbitrary. It’s built on values of kindness, care, and fairness. So establishing your family’s values and then living those values – children and parents together – helps you live with the intention of being respectful. Everything makes sense.

Give and then expect respect. According your children respect doesn’t mean you let them do whatever they want. That’s not respectful of you or other members of the family. According respect involves listening and acknowledging the other person’s point-of-view. Expecting respect back is equally important. Parents who let their children run all over them are unhappy. They think they want obedience but what they really want is to be treated with respect.

If you create an atmosphere of mutual respect, you will get obedience. You will get cooperation because your child knows respect is a two-way street. He gives and he gets back.

A preteen recently told me about the restrictions his parents put on his video game play. I remarked that his parents imposed restrictions because they care about him. He replied, “I obey their restrictions because I care about them” (meaning his parents).

That’s respect. That’s what you want.