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Hack the System to Trigger Respect

Aretha spelled it out for us. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. We all want to receive it — give it to me, give it to me, give it to me, right? What about a desire to do that, though? A desire to give respect? Paradoxically, to receive the respect we all want, we have to learn to give that respect first. As parents, we all want our children to show respect for themselves, for us, and for the other people in their lives. Ultimately, we want to teach our children to act respectfully, because we want them to reasonably expect respect from others, especially in their friendships and relationships.
When I read Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit last year, his concept of keystone habits impressed me. Architecturally, the keystone rests at the top of an arch, and doesn’t really bear that much weight, but it holds the other, weight-bearing stones in place. Not only will the arch fall down if we remove the keystone; the arch can’t be built at all without it. A keystone habit works similarly. It may not require much effort itself, but holds some other, more “weight bearing” habits in place.
We can use the power of habit, Mr. Duhigg argues, to rig our own systems for good. Most habits, both good and bad, follow a predictable path: a cue or trigger launches us into our accustomed routine, and we receive a reward at the end. For instance, we get in the shower (cue or trigger), and a sequence of events happens (routine), and we get out feeling refreshed (reward). If you’ve ever gotten out of the shower and not been sure whether you washed your face or not, you know the very definition of a routine — we don’t have to think about it; it seems to happen automatically. To develop the habits we want, to become the people we want to be, all we have to do is pick a trigger and make sure there’s a reward.
To build the bigger habit of respect, so that we come to think of ourselves as respectful people, and so that we’ll consistently, routinely, act respectfully, we need a keystone habit. When we fully integrate those kinds of habits into our self-image, we don’t just have respect for one thing or another; we are respectful. With the right small, low-effort habits in place, the bigger blocks of our respectfulness will be able to stand up to the challenges of frustration, anger and impatience that can otherwise make us act … ahem … less than respectfully.
In martial arts, we create a routine of small acts like using sir and ma’am, bowing, rising when an instructor enters the room, even making eye contact. These small habits seem insignificant or even silly, but they hold larger habits in place, like keystones. They don’t require a lot of effort, but pretty soon we do them without thinking about them. Children who routinely answer their parents with sir or ma’am also routinely follow directions more quickly and obediently. We bow to one another out of habit, and so develop a habit of training more safely and respectfully together.
If you’re seeing a certain diminished amount of respect in your children or in yourself, especially right now, while we’re all so very together with our families, remember that we can always rig the system.
  • We can put in place the triggers we know work well — being in uniform, wearing our belts, standing at attention, attending the online classes and private lessons at particular times or days.
  • We can make sure the familiar rewards are also in place, by using the Citizenship Awards program to get some checks for those chores, for getting along with siblings, for treating our parents respectfully.
Maintaining the triggers we use — by making our online lessons feel as much like “real karate class” as we can, and by insisting on those keystone habits all the time — helps us maintain the respectful habit or routine we’ve built, so that we can continue to reap the rewards. The short-term benefits will help us get through our current situation with strengthened and respectful family relationships. The long-term benefits will help us to have those same strong, respectful relationships throughout our lives.
Picture of Traci Elliott
Traci Elliott

Master Traci Elliott has trained in American Freestyle Karate since 2008. She is currently a fifth degree black belt. She lives in Asheboro with her two sons.