Teaching Manners to Children

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When our children were very young, we didn’t care much about their manners. As babies, their loud burps would usually elicit laughter, and as they learned to speak, we considered their inadvertent insults or seemingly rude behavior rather adorable. But as children get into preschool/day care and start having play dates and doing the birthday party circuit, manners become increasingly important.

Children who don’t learn respect, good manners, and how to behave with others run the risk of being shunned by their peers as children, alienating teachers and classmates during the school years, and having trouble in social situations as adults. 

Unfortunately, teaching kids manners isn’t easy. If pre-schoolers could draw a picture of the universe, they’d put themselves at the very center. They aren’t particularly interested in anyone else’s needs. 

The good news is that you’ve probably already started teaching your child manners. When your toddler wanted more green beans (okay, white rice), you prompted him to say “please.” And when your pre-schooler receives a present from grandma, you encourage him by asking, “What do you say to Grandma?”

While learning to say “please” and “thank you” is great, it is only a start. There’s much more for your child to learn. Overall, teaching manners is about instilling good behavior in a variety of situations. These few tips can help:

  • Start off easy. For 3-year-olds, “please” and “thank you” are first; then add in “excuse me.” Telephone etiquette, “Nice to meet you,” and thank-you notes are a ways off.
  • Give them some strategies. The second you answer the phone or start talking with someone, your pre-schooler will develop a sudden, irrepressible need to talk to you. While it will be near impossible to change that, you can teach your child to politely say “excuse me,” or to squeeze your arm instead of screaming. As he gets older you can explain the difference between good reasons to interrupt and bad ones. Needing a snack is a bad one. A fire in the kitchen is a good one. If your child uses one of these strategies, respond immediately. Ignoring a gentle arm squeeze sends the message to your child that screaming is a better option to get attention.
  • Talk the talk. Use please, thank you, and excuse me with your kids and everyone else you come in contact with. If you don’t say “please” when asking your child to pick up her toys, or if you skip the “thank you” when your spouse gives you a Valentine’s Day present, you’re undermining all the great lessons you’ve struggled so hard to teach.
  • Walk the walk. Similarly, holding the door for the people behind you and helping an old man cross the street models polite behavior. Screaming at the bozo who cut you off in traffic does exactly the opposite.
  • Be consistent. Manners and good behavior aren’t only for company or going out to eat. They need to be part of your everyday routine.
  • Skip the lectures. Too many parents launch into long-winded sermons like “Stop that yelling! How many times do I have to tell you to be quieter in the house?” Short, to-the-point phrases like “Inside voice, please” are much more effective. Same with behaviour. If your child picks up her food with her hands, instead of lecturing her on the history of flatware in the United States, just hand her a fork.
  • More carrots, fewer sticks. Pre-schoolers really want to do the right thing even when they aren’t sure what that is. And they’re suckers for compliments. So when your child behaves nicely, be lavish with praise. And be specific: “I’m very proud of how you told your baby brother you were sorry when you dropped a block on his toe.”
  • Respect your child. If your child behaves rudely, take him aside and discuss the issue privately. Criticizing your child in front of others will embarrass him and could cause him to be even ruder later on as a way of trying to get back at you.
  • Establish and enforce consequences. The manners bar should get higher as your child gets older. So if he demands that you go to the living room and bring the teddy bear he left there, tell him he’ll have to get it himself. And if he doesn’t thank you for pouring the big glass of milk he asked for, take it away until he does.

Finally, keep your expectations reasonable. The reality is that teaching good manners is a process that will take years. In the meantime, you’ll need to be prepared to remind your child dozens of times every day before the message really sinks in.

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