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Bernice Lee (left) and Marie Marchand. Photo: Jonathan Wong

Children who are taught to respect others remain respectful in later life

Children can learn about respect at a young age, but parents must set the example

Cici George

Julie Fecteau has noticed an interesting development in her four-year-old son Julien. He has started giving up his seat to older people in the MTR. "Hey mummy, I respect him," Julien told Julie, to her surprise.

Fecteau had been trying to cultivate respect for other people in her child, and was heartened that he seemed to have grasped the concept. "I can't believe how much they absorb and notice. Now, sometimes when I need time to do my own work, I ask him if he could please respect my need for space, and he understands and goes off and plays by himself."

Rather than simply telling Julien to respect other people, Fecteau had decided to be a respectful parent. This approach shows that respect goes both ways. Respect is expected from children, but parents must also show it to their children.

Marie Marchand, a parenting consultant with more than 25 years of experience in early childhood teaching, suggests that respectful parenting might be the way to raise children who are considerate of others in the 21st century.

"Rather than one person telling another what to do, and the other doing it, both parties feel like they're listened to and heard and loved. They acknowledge each other's desires, hopes and choices," says Marchand, a mother of three.

The approach is gaining some traction among young Hong Kong parents, who might have been raised differently. At a recent workshop she delivered, Marchand says that about 85 per cent of the parents were Chinese.


She stresses that ensuring children feel listened to and heard is a process that starts young. "Then when they're teenagers they're happy to talk to you and will come to you when they have bigger issues."

Marchand recommends "reflective listening", which involves "really validating the person's feelings, not panicking or jumping to conclusions right away, and helping the child solve the problem".

Lisa Williams has found the approach useful both at home with her two children and in her role as a kindergarten teacher.

"Children aged two to five are just learning to be more independent. They want to do things their way and they're entering an environment, either at school or at home - with the arrival of a younger sibling - where they have to share," she says.


"We have to help them with the language and show them the best way to handle their emotions. We need to find language that doesn't crush them, but gives them information so they can understand why they can't do something. That way, they'll learn from it."

Marchand differentiates between discipline and punishment. Both seek to teach the child something, but a punishment such as hitting is disrespectful to the child.


Discipline, she says, means guiding children so they can decide on good solutions to their problems and can function in society positively.

Recently, social media was abuzz with the case of a young man, later identified as a student, who dropped a HK$500 note into the bus collection box.

Many commentaries read the incident as indicative of young people's lack of respect for money. But Marchand feels the issue is more complex.


"Most parents would freak out at the child," Marchand says, adding that acknowledging the child's feelings of stress and then figuring out a solution together might be a better approach.

Marchand emphasises that it's important to take time for training. "Don't expect your children to know everything. If you don't teach your children to put their clothes in the laundry basket, how will they know that's what they should be doing?

"Some people don't teach their children and then yell at them. Also, encourage them when they get it right."


Research shows there has been a decline in the number of Hong Kong children performing basic self-care tasks.

A study by City University's department of applied social studies in 2013 found that about 62 per cent of parents of children aged between four and 12 said their children did not help with household chores, with many attaching greater importance to homework.

Williams says the culture of having a helper can complicate parenting, especially if the household frequently changes helpers, or the helper has different ideas of what's acceptable. "Sometimes children don't talk to helpers very respectfully," she says. "I find self-help skills are really quite lacking in Hong Kong."

Although the Williams family has a helper, the children, who are 12 and 15, are responsible for their own rooms, and must tidy up for themselves. They also have to wash up at weekends.

Fecteau and her husband chose not to employ a domestic helper. So Julian is involved in a number of household chores such as loading the washing machine and putting out laundry. "He's been helping me vacuum since he was a toddler, as sometimes he could reach places I couldn't," says Fecteau.

Babies carefully watch and listen to what adults do, so use polite speech
Bernice Lee, etiquette consultant

After attending Marchand's course, Fecteau realised that encouraging Julian, a shy child, in these activities had the added bonus of raising his self-esteem. Their open-plan home makes it easier to talk to each other while performing chores.

Although Fecteau's husband, a local Chinese, was raised differently, she says he shares her belief that the children should be respected. "I've taken the lead and I am sharing my tools with him. We need to be consistent, so we sometimes meet behind closed doors and discuss our approach."

Marchand says it's important to get helpers, or other primary people looking after kids such as grandparents, on board with the family's values. She suggests making a list of values that are important to the family and then asking others how they can foster these values.

"Parents need to be clear about their values and then talk to people who are involved with their children. Try to make your approach as consistent as possible," she says, adding that parents need to work hard to reinforce their values.

"For example, one of our family values is hard work. In Canada, where we're from, some people start summer jobs when they're 15. Here, kids can't work legally at that age," she says.

The Marchand children worked over the summer in Canada and also did small jobs in Hong Kong such as walking dogs and teaching young boys soccer skills. This eventually grew into a party planning business.

"We worked hard for this to happen. It was all worth it," she says.

Nurturing children who are respectful of others involves role modelling and training. Williams, who has received compliments on her children's social skills, says she practises role-modelling and reminds her children to be polite.

"If I'm talking to my children and they answer without looking at me, I stop talking until they do," she says.

Bernice Lee, an etiquette consultant who has helped children, teenagers and young adults polish their manners and gain confidence, agrees that role modelling is important.

"You can start when they are babies," she says. "Babies carefully watch and listen to what adults do, so use polite speech and show respect for others. Encourage gentle touching."

"By the time they're three, coach them in greetings ['hello', 'goodbye'], polite words ['please', 'thank you'], sharing and tidying up. Between five and eight, parents can expect confident greetings, automatic use of polite words and caring for their environment.

"They can also start working on table manners such as staying at the table, coming to the table with clean hands and participating in conversation," Lee adds

Marchand points out that developing manners takes place in conjunction with the stages of social development. "When they're little, children think of themselves as their own world. It's around the age of five that they become capable of more," she says.

Lee says that she instils an understanding of the rationale behind the etiquette. "Etiquette is a set of rules that governs behaviour. Manners express your character and value system." She adds that in a globalised world, it's important for children to become socially agile and culturally sensitive.

"When meeting someone who's different from you, it's respectful and empowering to know how to adjust and navigate the interaction so it's smooth and comfortable," Lee says.

Cultivating considerate behaviour is a process, she says. "Parents can be frustrated that their kids don't seem to 'get it'. I remind them that manners are learned over the course of years," she says.


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Manners in the works