How Do Children Learn Respect for Others?

Indigenous and Western ways of fostering respect in children clash.

Posted Oct 04, 2020

The most common belief in Western societies is that children need to learn respect by following the directives of their parents and other adults. It is presumed that children have to learn to suppress their own impulses and desires to live a good life. This contrasts with the Indigenous perspective that a child with proper support will learn to fit into the community without coercion. Let’s look into more details.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) articulated two accepted attitudes in Europe at the time that are still dominant today. One is that only humans are persons because they have autonomy—they freely choose to act on principle by imposing laws on themselves. It is this form of rationality that gives humans special status. To act rationally and morally is to act on principle and not according to desire.

Second, to learn to follow laws instead of desires a human child needs to learn obedience to the laws of adults. They must practice “heteronomy” (laws/rules imposed by others) before they are able to practice autonomy (laws/rules they choose for themselves). Autonomy involves self-discipline, imposing (accepted) laws on oneself. Only then you are a real person with intrinsic value. You are then also able to make laws which you should do by taking the perspective of all persons, using Kant’s Categorical Imperative (act in the way you would want others to act in the situation, treating other people as persons, not instruments you use for your own goals).

Describing Kant’s perspective, philosopher John Watson (1847-1939) explained:

“At first everyone is under apparent bondage to his superiors in the family relation, but in reality this is the means by which a measure of freedom is attained. It is true that he must render implicit obedience to those in authority over him, but in so doing he learns to free himself from an undue accentuation of his own individual desires and to seek his freedom where alone it can be found—in the subordination of his own will to the good of others” (Watson 1988, 37-38).

The Indigenous perspective contradicts all of this (MacPherson and Rabb, 2011). It embraces several principles/practices that provide a different pathway for the development of children and of respect.

First, according to the Indigenous worldview, human beings are not the only persons in the world, and conscious rationality is not a signal of possible personhood. Instead, the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, notably: animals, plants, waterways, mountains. Each has its intelligence, agency, lifeway, and it is not up to humans to figure out the details of differences but accept them and coordinate peaceful coexistence. Thus, respectful attitudes and behavior must extend to other than humans too (“all our relations”).

Second, the way a child learns respect is by being welcomed into the community and receiving respectful attention to their needs as a baby and toddler, when capacities are shaped. The child is immersed in a supportive, guileless environment. Anthropologist E. Richard Sorenson (1998) noted:

“I was astonished to see the words of tiny children accepted at face value—and so acted on. Over months I tried to find at least one case where a child’s words were considered immature and therefore disregarded. No luck. I tried to explain the idea of lying and inexperience. They didn’t get my point. They didn’t expect prevarication, deception, grandstanding, or evasion. And I could find no cases where they understood these concepts. Even teenagers remained transparently forthright, their hearts opened wide for all to gaze inside.” (p. 97)

In Indigenous communities around the world, children are not expected to subordinate their wills to that of others, but to align them, learning from a young age to coordinate preverbal impulses to enhance relational connection (Sorenson, 1998). And they are not expected to endure a period of heteronomy in order to gain autonomy and learn respect for others. Instead, children learn respect through how they are treated and through the stories, rituals, and role models of their community members.

Indigenous societies typically honor children, displaying as a primary principle non-interference in the self-growth of the child. The child is assumed to be guided by an inner spirit; coercion can interfere with this health-oriented guidance. Children are presumed autonomous agents from the time they are mobile. They can make their own decisions, are presumed independent and not subject to rigid times for eating or sleeping. McPherson and Rabb (2011) note that instead of having laws and rules that others tell you to follow, Native elders speak indirectly, using stories (e.g., Basso, 1996). This is what McPherson and Rabb call “interventive-noninterference” (p. 105), which they claim is the opposite of a Kantian approach. Non-interference is a sign of respect for personhood and a method that fosters self-reliance and independent thinking. Bossing someone, ordering them, criticizing someone—all are rude and inappropriate.

Over the course of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, individuals are immersed in a community filled with respectful role models, stories, and rituals, as well as one or more vision quests. McPherson and Rabb (2011) note that the vision quest is essential for reinforcing traditional values, including discovering how one is not apart from others or the earth, but a part of everything that is:

“With this comes the knowledge that willing the good of others is not in any sense a form of self-sacrifice given the enlarged sense of self acquired in the journey into non-ordinary reality” (p. 100).

The sense of communion with all, a sense of oneness, that is experienced in the vision quest is that with the Common Self (Narvaez, 2014). This form of attachment—ecological attachment—is part of humanity's evolved nest and is often missing in the childhoods of those who grow up in civilized nations, and may be part of the reason for the ecologically destructive decisions and actions that civilization has brought about (Narvaez, 2020a, 2020b).

Example of the culture clash

Here is an example from The Jesuit Relations, early accounts of French missionaries to the Americas. Writing in 1633 among the Algonquin, Paul Le Jeune reports on an incident where an Algonquin approached a French boy beating a drum.

“As the Indian approached close to see him better, the little boy struck him a blow with one of his drumsticks and made his head bleed badly. Immediately all the people of his nation who were looking at the drummer took offense upon seeing this blow given. They went and found the French interpreter and said to him: “One of your people has wounded one of ours. You know our custom well; give us presents for this wound.” As there is no government among the Indians, when one among them kills or wounds another, he is (assuming he escapes immediate retaliation) released from all punishment by giving a few presents to the friends of the deceased or wounded one. Our interpreter said: “You know our custom: When any of our number does wrong, he is punished. This child has wounded one of your people, and so he shall be whipped at once in your presence.” The little boy was brought in, and when they saw that we were really in earnest, that we were stripping this little boy, pounder of Indians and of drums, and that our switches were all ready, they immediately asked that he be pardoned, arguing that he was only a child, that he had no mind, that he did not know what he was doing. As our people were going to punish him nevertheless, one of the Indians stripped himself entirely, threw his robe over the child, and cried out to the man who was going to do the whipping: “Strike me if you will, but you will not strike him”; and thus the little one escaped. All the Indian nations of these parts—and those of Brazil, we are told—cannot punish a child, nor allow one to be chastised. How much trouble this will give us in carrying out our plans of teaching the young!

The treatment of Native American children in the USA after colonization, including kidnapping, and forced boarding school, was meant to take the Indian out of the person. The brutality Native children experienced from the European-imported view that children must obey adults and follow their rules or be punished still reverberates through the generations of Native peoples. October 12 is Indigenous People's Day, a good time to remember accurate historical events and their effects.


Basso, K. (1996). Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Cavoukian, R., & Olfman, S. (Eds.) (2006). Child honoring: How to turn this world around. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Kant, I. (1964). Groundwork of the metaphysic of morals (H.J. Paton, trans). New York: Harper & Row.

McPherson, D.H., & Rabb, J.D. (2011). Indian from the inside: Native American philosophy and cultural renewal, 2nd ed. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Co.

Narvaez, D. (2014). Neurobiology and the development of human morality: Evolution, culture and wisdom. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Narvaez, D. (2020). Ecocentrism: Resetting baselines for virtue development. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 23, 391–406.

Narvaez, D. (2020). Moral education in a time of human ecological devastation. Journal of Moral Education.

Sorenson, E.R. (1998). Preconquest consciousness. In H. Wautischer (Ed.), Tribal epistemologies (pp. 79-115). Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Watson, J. (1988). The relation of philosophy to science. In J.D. Rabb (Ed.), Religion and science in early Canada. Kingston: Ronald P. Frye.