Talking to Children About Dignity

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Everyone on this planet has the right to lead a dignified life. Young people, old people, poor people, rich people, people living all around the world, one thing we have in common is the right to be treated with dignity. 

For many children, “dignity” is an unfamiliar term. You have a wonderful opportunity to talk to the children in your life about the dignity that resides in each of us and to help them develop the values and character traits that exemplify a dignified life. 

Take advantage of everyday occurrences to introduce children to the concept of dignity. At the dinner table, engage family members in a discussion of what it means when we say “please” and “thank you” as serving dishes are passed. While watching videos together, point out examples of people treating others with dignity. At a sports event, engage children in dialogue about the behaviors and language of athletes, coaches, or fans that demonstrate respect or lack of it. Use these teachable moments to help children learn what it means to be treated with dignity and how to treat others with dignity.

Children need to hear in your own words what dignity means to you and why it is something you value. Talk about people you admire for living dignified lives. Public figures such as Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. may first come to mind, but don’t overlook those in your immediate circle of family and friends. Describe your respect of a neighbor who shops for groceries for an elderly shut-in or your admiration of a special teacher who has devoted her life her students.

Keep in mind that adults aren’t the only ones who live dignified lives. The world is filled with children who seek to live each day with dignity. Give young people the same respect you would give a treasured friend. Show dignity through your kindness, your patience, your tone of voice. Children who are treated with respect and dignity learn invaluable lessons on how to treat others.

Whenever we enhance the dignity of others, we become more dignified ourselves. Provide children with opportunities to experience what it feels like to treat others with dignity. Offer praise when they do things that make a positive difference in the lives of others. Encourage them to act with dignity in everyday ways, like sharing toys, taking turns in games, and being inclusive in their relationships. Dignity comes in big and little packages. A child who offers friendship to a classmate who is being ostracized by others because of ethnic differences is just as worthy of esteem as a world leader who is convening a summit on human rights. 

The Global Dignity initiative (www.globaldignity.org) offers five dignity principles. Engage children in dialogue about each dignity principle. Together, discuss how these principles relate to your lives and the lives of others.

  • Every human being has a right to lead a dignified life.
  • A dignified life means an opportunity to fulfill one’s potential, which is based on having a human level of health care, education, income and security.
  • Dignity means having the freedom to make decisions on one’s life and to be met with respect for this right.
  • Dignity should be the basic guiding principle for all actions.
  • Ultimately, our own dignity is interdependent with the dignity of others.

While it is important to verbalize lessons on dignity, the meaning dignity and the relevance of dignity principles are best communicated to children through the actions of the significant adults in their lives. Model behaviors and attitudes that show what dignity means to you--empathy, honesty, humility, trust, integrity, responsibility, fairness, tolerance, whatever core values guide your life. Use language that reflects these values, and refrain from making negative statements about diverse groups, whether based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical or mental ability, age, economic status, or other traits. Model dignity by showing care and compassion for those who might feel at risk because of their perceived differences. 

By living the ideals of a dignified life and talking to young people about dignity, you will give the children in your life the solid foundation they need to develop personal dignity, as well as a sense of shared dignity with others living in their communities and throughout the world.

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