Teaching a small child self-respect, to find and use his or her own voice can be one of the most valuable lessons you share as a parent or special adult in that child’s life. When children can speak up for themselves, this will help them in every aspect of their lives, for the rest of their lives. Having the ability to use their voices, they’re able to command respect, protect their feelings and their bodies, and increase their confidence in their ideas, their relationships and in various social settings. There are several facets to teaching a child to use his or her voice.

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Examples of self-respect for children

Allow your child to make choices about his or her body. You can start by allowing them choices on what to wear, and checking with them if it’s ok to help them dress or undress. This is the beginning of teaching your child about consent, even if he or she is a baby. Loved ones can also model consent by asking, ‘May I pick you up?’ or ‘May I give you a hug?’ and in the bath or nappy changes, asking permission before you clean or wipe your child in private places. Those conversations can lead to discussions about appropriate versus inappropriate touching, and even little children should expect to be asked permission from anyone who comes into contact with them. Even if they’re your children and you’ve been looking after them literally since day one, you’re showing them you respect their body by asking first.

Respect for their bodies

This is the same in our campuses. It’s our policy to maintain the rights and dignity of the children, that includes in terms of nappy changing and toileting, so we try to provide privacy where possible from everyone in our campuses. Our educators are all trained in respectful care, and host not-for-profit visitors such as Bravehearts, who teach children about advocating for body safety, yes and no feelings, the difference between parents, trusted adults like doctors or educators looking after their bodies, versus strangers and unsafe adults.

We recommend teaching children young the proper names for their body parts and use them any time you are talking about them. When they’re first learning to speak, this can be a great bathtime conversation as you point out the names of various body parts. Keep any cringing when talking about body parts to yourself. The sexualised nature of private body parts — giggling or shame when talking about them — that’s adult stuff that we don’t need to put onto children.

“I teach my children “Your body belongs to you and you only” as well as naming their correct private parts which are theirs only,” says Holly, a lead educator in the Senior Kindy studio at our Staplyton campus. “Children really need to be educated about body awareness/safety.”

Why is teaching them proper names so important? Getting used to these conversations young can reduce embarrassment, something unnecessarily expressed by many adults and in previous generations, and establish ongoing communications with children about sex/sexuality. But most importantly, this educates and empowers little ones about their body safety, and research shows this could protect them from predators.

Explain to your child that nobody is allowed to touch our private parts unless it’s for hygiene or medical reasons and that people who have to come in contact with your child’s private areas have to ask permission first. But while there’s no shame in their bodies, they should also know there are parts of the body that are private and have it explained to them those parts are just for them.

Holly says additionally, they have conversations with the children with scenarios about stranger danger and the steps they need to remember in case anything like that happens. They also have conversations about who the children name as their ‘safe people’.

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Respect for children in public

There are lots of ways to show children respect, and it’s important when you expect them to respect others. Try to refrain from talking about your child, especially in front of them, to others, or be mindful of what you do share. This shows your child you respect his or her privacy. You may remember a time when you were younger when a parent or someone you loved shared a story that embarrassed you – even as an adult, you remember. Your child could too. Before you tell a story, ask yourself how they’d feel about you telling it.

In our increasingly digital world, this also goes for sharing everything about them on social media. Once it’s online, it’s there forever. Even if it in theory disappears after 24 hours, screenshots can be taken. That also goes for other people’s children – other parents may not want them on social media, so keep online sharing to your own children. Consider what you are posting, would your child want to have a picture for the world to see of themselves on the potty or with a bare bottom when they’re older? Keep in mind others may Google them in the future; potential and current employers, associates, and most scarily, predators.

Another way you can show your child respect is by discussing inappropriate behaviour away from public settings. Keep important conversations for a time when you can discuss them privately. You may think embarrassing them by calling their actions out in public might stop them from doing it again, but this will likely backfire. You can say in public something like ‘We will have an important talk about this later.’ and stick to that. But highlighting negative behaviours in public only causes humiliation and shame, and no one needs to feel that way.

Respect for their physical boundaries

Don’t force children to hug or kiss anyone, even family. You could ask, for example, how they’d like to say greet people in each social situation.

“I offer children the choice of a hug, holding hands or sitting together as an alternative to allow them to make the choice. When saying hello or goodbye they can say just the words, high five, fist bump or hug, but it is always up to them,” says Claire, an educator from our Nerang campus. These options still teach them to be polite if that’s important to you, but shows them how they can do it within their comfort level and respects their physical boundaries.

Respect by owning up to mistakes

Parents often focus on teaching children to be respectful, such as learning to apologise when in the wrong, but teaching children to just say ‘sorry’ versus understanding how their actions actually affect others and learning to own their actions is a better way to develop their emotional maturity. By asking the children questions such as ‘how do you think your sister felt when you hit her?’ or ‘how were you feeling when you broke that toy?’ and ‘what would you like people to do if they recognise they made you feel sad?’ will get them to begin to understand owning up to their mistakes and learning to say sorry meaningfully.

This is also where modelling comes in. It’s important to apologise to your child when you make a mistake. They learn from you, and by saying you’re sorry sincerely shows children that no one is perfect, that everyone makes mistakes, but it’s how we respond to them that counts. This could be done in other ways, rather than an adult yelling when angry, but by speaking kindly and respectfully to them, even when it’s difficult to, or if you’re setting a limit, children begin to understand their actions have consequences and can respond to situations differently in future.

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Respect their voice

Let your child answer for themselves. Refrain from answering questions directed at them. If they don’t want to answer, don’t make a big deal about it.

“We use language to acknowledge how children feel for example, ‘I can see that you are upset, how can I help you?’” says Claire. “We use this language to help children to speak for themselves every day so it becomes second nature to them.”

We guide our educators to tune in to the behaviours, actions and emotions of the child to identify what they may be trying to communicate.

“Through listening to gestures cues, along with words, shows respect and ensures we are responsive to children and value their rights,” says Susan Cooper, group pedagogical leader for Little Scholars. “It is important for early childhood educators to validate what the children may be feeling and this is done by our educators asking the child about their emotions and setting spaces and environments where the children feel safe and secure to express their feelings comfortably.”

Tell them it’s OK to say ‘no’ if they feel unsafe or unsure. This teaches children and young people that it is OK to stand up for themselves and to be assertive if something doesn’t feel right. Following this, they should know that nothing is so ‘yucky’ that they can’t tell someone they trust about it. Hopefully, this is something your child never has to deal with, but if they’re asked to keep something secret that hurts them or makes them uncomfortable, then by talking to them about situations like this, they’ll speak up straight away and not worry about getting in trouble by breaking a ‘secret’. Teach them the difference between secrets, privacy, and surprises.

Here’s an explanation of the differences. A surprise is something that should be fun, happy, and temporary. Secrets that are meant to be kept for a long time are usually meant to protect someone or keep someone from getting in trouble. Although we want children to be wary of secrets (therefore, keep language in mind) —and especially to come to us when they have an unsafe secret—they also need to learn that some things should be kept private. Privacy isn’t about keeping someone from getting in trouble; it’s about respecting a person’s personal information.

Finally, please feel free to talk to your educators or campus managers about how they manage any of these conversations and talk to them about how you prefer it handled. We want your children and your family to feel respected and heard, safe and happy in our care, and if we can help with those conversations, we’d like to. These are also conversations you should have with extended family or people who will be in your child’s life.

Most importantly, model the person you want them to become. Children will remember their biggest role models their entire lives, so being a respectful, caring, supportive, confident adult influence will teach children the best person he or she can become. By showing them the respect they deserve and teaching them about self-respect, we’re setting them up for their future. Self-respecting and resilient children who spend time in positive, affectionate and supportive environments, led by clear and reasonable guidelines, and have healthy connections to parents and other adults, grow to be adults with the ability to bounce back from challenging situations their entire lives. And, all of the ways you show respect for children teaches them how they should show respect for others.