Respect: The Sixth Core Strength

By Bruce Duncan Perry, M.D., Ph.D.

The ability to respect oneself and others is the last of the six core strengths that are an essential part of healthy emotional development. These six core strengths are the foundation of Scholastic's company-wide program, Keep the Cool in School: A Scholastic Campaign Against Violence and Verbal Abuse. In this article, Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., explores respect and how it contributes to preventing aggression and anti-social behaviors.

"My gramma is so old she knows everything." — a 5-year-old whispering in awe to her teacher

Respect — the ability to see and celebrate the value in ourselves and others — is the sixth core strength. This is the most complex of the core strengths. It requires the emotional, social, and cognitive maturity that comes from developing the five previous strengths (attachment, self-regulation, affiliation, awareness, and tolerance).

Developing the capacity for respect is a lifelong challenge. Our sense of self tends to be fragile. It rises and falls as we face life's challenges with varying degrees of success. The development of self-respect, or, in essence, self-esteem, is guided by how we see ourselves. The people in our lives act as a mirror in this process. When people who are important to us give us attention and encouragement, we see positive images of ourselves. At other times, our interactions with others may make us feel unattractive, incompetent, or even invisible. As with adults, young children build their sense of self-respect from their interactions with others. When they are made to feel special and valued, children grow to respect themselves. A positive sense of one's self allows the maturing child to respect others.

Self-respect is at the heart of respecting others. When you can identify and appreciate your strengths and accept your vulnerabilities, it's easier to truly respect the value in others.

Valuing Others

We respect people who have traits we admire. Young children begin to respect things they see in the adults who are present in their lives-both good and bad. What a child respects, in other words, is determined in large part by what the child is exposed to. Young children raised in antisocial homes may actually respect and admire antisocial acts. They aspire to be just like Mom or Dad! Young children who watch hours of television and have few adult role models may begin to value persons in the media-with all of their distorted values and unrealistic traits. This becomes a trap for young children. They will never be able to be as athletic, beautiful, powerful, and popular as the false images they see on television. And, unable to meet these ideals, they will feel inadequate and unattractive.

Hopefully, through many quality experiences with attentive adults, the child begins to see more realistic qualities to admire. Consistency, predictability, grace under pressure, humor, and kindness are among the qualities that caring and competent adults model for young children. In the classroom, children see how respected adults--their teachers-solve problems and cope with challenges. If their teachers handle conflicts by listening, thinking, staying calm, and reaching thoughtful solutions, the child comes to respect these behaviors.

Struggling With Respect

There are two ways in which children struggle with respect. One is overt noncompliance and defiance. In this case, there is a lack of respect for classmates and for you and your authority as a teacher. This is almost always associated with a poor sense of self, despite the fact that these children will often brag and distort their strengths and capabilities. This bragging is merely a protective shell over a very fragile sense of self. Often these children have not had much attention or structure when they are away from school.

The other way in which a child struggles with respect is when he begins to say, "I'm bad," "I can't do that," "I'm stupid," "He's better than I am." Children with this type of poor sense of self start to limit their opportunities. They don't try as hard, and as a result, they may end up creating self-fulfilling prophecies. Because they don't try new things, they don't learn as fast. They fall behind. This negative cycle can be very destructive for young children.

What You Can Do

Children will come to respect the traits and values of the adults in their lives. Let children see how you show respect for all people, including the elderly, authority figures such as police officers, and people who are different from you in terms of ethnicity or religion.

  • Strive to live what you teach. Be patient, consistent, caring, honest, and attentive.
  • When a child is struggling, give him opportunities to succeed. Match his social and learning challenges with his stage of development. Slowly help him master new, but not overwhelming, challenges.
  • Use positive comments and rewards to shape and reinforce behaviors. Remember the intense power of negative comments. Intervene and stop negative comments that are being used by any of the children against other children.

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This article orginally appeared in Early Childhood Today magazine.


Dr. Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment ( In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.