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Sentinel Digital Desk

We will all agree that trying to get respectful behaviour out of our three or four year olds is like trying to get blood from the proverbial stone. That's due, in part, to the fact that their language skills are still developing. So, when we tell them its bedtime, they're unlikely to say, "I'm really having fun in the bath. I wonder if I could have five more minutes of playtime?" They're more likely to splash and yell, "No!" with gleeful rebellion glittering in their eyes.

Youngsters this age are also starting to wonder what kind of power they wield within the family. They start testing a little bit. It's perfectly normal behaviour for our preschoolers to do this, and it's just another part of their development. Despite the need for three and four year olds to test their boundaries, we can – and should – start teaching good manners now. We shouldn't wait to begin teaching our little ones the importance of respect and it should be done the right way.

Demonstrating respectful behaviour is really very important. We don't generally give our children the kind of respect that we demand from them. It can be hard to wait patiently for our kids to have their say, but it's worth it. Getting down on their level, looking them in the eye, and letting them know we're interested in what they're telling us works wonders. It's the best way to teach them to listen to us just as carefully.

Teaching polite responses goes a long way in teaching our little ones to be respectful. Our children can show caring and respect for others through good manners. As soon as they can communicate verbally, they can learn to say "please" and "thank you." We need to explain that we'd rather help them when they're polite to us, and that we don't like it when they order us around. Again, being respectful ourselves works better than lecturing. Say "please" and "thank you" regularly to our children (and others), and they'll learn that these words are part of normal communication, both within our family and in public.

It helps if we don't overreact. If our preschoolers call us something nasty like a "poo head" we should try not to get upset, or at least try not to show how upset we are. Children who want to provoke a reaction will endure almost any unpleasantness just to get a reaction out of us. Instead, get face to face and say quietly but firmly, "We don't call each other names in our family." Then show how to get what they want by being respectful: "When you want me to play with you, just ask me nicely. Say, 'Mummy, please can you come and have a tea party now.'"

Expecting disagreements helps us handle the situation better. It would be much easier if our children always happily complied with our requests, but that's not human nature. We have to try to remember that when our youngster won't do as we ask, they aren't trying to be disrespectful — they just have a different opinion. It helps if we teach them that they'll fare better if they can learn to stop expressing herself disrespectfully ("You never take me to the park, you bad Mummy!") and instead learns to put a positive spin on requests ("Can we please go to the park after shopping?").

Setting limits is very important and one of the best ways to demonstrate respect is to be both kind and firm in our discipline. Being kind shows respect for your children, and being firm shows respect for what needs to be done. So if our three or four year olds throw a fit in the supermarket, and none of our coping tactics work, what do we do? Kindly but firmly take them out to the car, and sit and read a magazine until they're done. Then we can say calmly, "Now you're ready to try again," and return to the shop. Gradually they'll learn that a temper tantrum doesn't alter the fact that the food shopping has to be done.

Talking it over later is of great help. Sometimes the best way to handle disrespectful behaviour is to discuss it with our preschooler later, when we've both had a chance to calm down. We can validate their feelings and make our point by saying, "I could tell you were very upset. What do you think caused that? What would be a more respectful way to tell me how you're feeling?" If our children know we're really curious about their thinking, they'll probably come to the same conclusion we would.

Praising respectful behaviour brings us many bonus points. We need to reinforce their impromptu displays of politeness as much as possible but be specific. The praise should describe the behaviour in detail. We tend to say, "good girl," "good boy," "well done." Instead, say, "Thank you for saying please when you asked for some juice," or "Thank you for waiting for your turn while the other children got their ice cream". Be explicit, and our children will quickly learn that their efforts are worthwhile and appreciated.

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