Kids weren’t born with manners. You’ll find that out the first time your daughter’s finger is knuckle-deep up her nose at your in-laws’ dinner table or when your son burps over the pastor’s “Amen” in church followed by a fit of giggling. “Please” and “Thank you” aren’t instincts, and setting standards for good manners differs from family to family. My dad set the standard for us growing up with one simple question: “Would Princess Di do that?” I’m not going to lie, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb as it foiled not only all disgusting bodily functions but straightened our posture, sharpened our etiquette and polished off a decent British accent for us in the process. Three-year-olds might not get it though.
So, how do you teach kids to mind their manners? While I don’t expect my kids to maintain British royalty standards, I do expect them to be respectful to their environment and those around them. How? With a few basic guides we use in our family for common courtesy.
Kind manners are more caught than taught, so the most important way you can pass them to your kids is to model them and talk about them in your home.
Say Please and Thank You
You can’t get around these two passwords in our home. And if your child is a late talker, they can easily learn to sign these. Start by constantly modeling “Please” and “Thank you” when your child is only months old. Every time you hand them a bottle, a sippy cup, a Cheerio or a toy, model a sing-song “Thank you, Mama!” It won’t be long before they’re doing it on their own. As they get older, offer gentle reminders when they forget, but don’t get in the habit of jumping to do anything if they’re demanding it (“I want cereal!”) rather than kindly asking for it (“May I please have a bowl of cereal?”). Another way to show your child how silly bad manners are is to act out a scene with bad manners followed by appropriate ones. Exaggerate if needed to show contrast. Your child will understand in no time. Don’t forget, “Thank you” goes beyond receiving food. It is the appropriate response for receiving gifts, favors, kindness and compliments.
Thank You for Shy Kids
My daughter went through a shy phase where saying “Thank you” to people she didn’t know well was difficult for her. I was hung up on making her do it at first, translating her lack of communication as nothing less than rudeness. I realized though that she wasn’t being rude—she just wasn’t comfortable with talking on the spot. We made a compromise for a while where she was at least required to look at the person who gave her a compliment and smile. I’d then jump in and say, “She’s saying thank you with her eyes.” It wasn’t long before she said the words herself, and our little accommodation helped her get there.
By teaching kids not to interrupt others while they’re talking, we’re letting them know that the world does not revolve around them. If it’s an emergency or if adults are so caught up in talking, kids can’t seem to get a word in edgewise (hey, it happens), two magic words can politely request attention: “Excuse me.” When you’re teaching these manners to your kids, make sure you tell them why they’re important so that they stick. “We don’t interrupt people when they’re talking because that makes them feel like what they have to say isn’t important” is a simple explanation that even toddlers can understand.
If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say…
This is an old-fashioned rule, but a great one that covers all the bases: “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” So when you’re visiting friends for dinner and your child doesn’t like your friend’s meatloaf, there’s no need for her to say, “Ew, this is gross.” And if you’re standing in line at the grocery store, maybe it’s not necessary for your son to loudly point out, “That lady has a mole on her face.” If this happens though, don’t freak out! Kids are only being honest, not mean, and they need you to help them learn what’s socially appropriate. Teach them to whisper observations to you, not shout them for all to hear. And practice saying phrases that embrace honesty yet aren’t impolite. “No thank you” is an easy way to express dislike (“Another piece of meatloaf?”) and “Thank you for thinking of me” is a great way to express gratitude without being fake (that ugly sweater Grandma bought for a birthday gift).
Use a Key Word
For all those hard to categorize behaviors that are naturally part of childhood—picking noses, burping, scratching bottoms, passing gas—find a simple code word that lets your child know it’s not the best choice of action out in public. We use the word “inappropriate” which I like because it doesn’t necessarily imply that these actions are bad (and they’re not!). It simply reminds our children when they need a little social guidance that these actions have a time and a place—preferably “not here, not now.”
Kindness and Respect
There’s a broader message to minding manners that, when we practice and model with our kids, will naturally teach them to be considerate and polite, and that is “Be Kind and Be Respectful.” When we raise our kids in a way that makes them aware of others’ needs and eager to help, then they will recognize opportunities to practice manners—holding doors open for people behind them, helping those who need extra help, allowing someone to go ahead of them, listening well. Being polite is more about recognizing that the world is full of people, and our actions affect them. If we can simplify this message for our kids and live it in our everyday lives, then we are giving them the foundation they will need to be well-mannered, compassionate individuals.
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