I’ll never forget how dumb I felt as a child, about 10-years-old, when meeting a friend of my grandmother.
She shook my hand and asked me how I was. Dumbfounded, I just stood there.
She then shook my younger cousins hand and my cousin replied appropriately to her question, “Fine, thank you. How are you?”
Nobody has ever criticized my powers of observation.
I knew just how to respond to that greeting from there on out.
Because I don’t want my own children to feel the same awkward embarrassment and shame I did, I intentionally work with them and teach them proper etiquette for different social situations.
I can’t say they’re perfect, but I have received many compliments on their behavior over the years.
It’s never too early to start teaching manners to your children. Polite and gracious behavior is a skill every child should learn. The earlier you start, the better.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Model Desirable Behavior and Manners
Kids absorb every word we say, everything we do… seriously, everything!
They are little sponges. Our behaviors, both good and bad, are watched and studied carefully by our little ones.
Foster a polite, mannerly environment by demonstrating the very behaviors you want your kids to emulate. You set the standard for your children.
2. Introduce Courteous Words Early
Be sure to include words like please, thank you, and sorry.
When my young children ask me for something, I usually sing the song, “There are two little magic words that will open any door with ease, the second little word is thanks and the first little word is please” to remind them that I expect to hear the magic words before their request is granted.
The earlier you can get your children using their manners when participating in social interactions, the more natural it will become for them.
Children are naturally self-absorbed and lacking in compassion, and require help to develop those skills.
You can help them to learn empathy by pointing out how their behavior affects people. For example, when they hurt another child or take a toy, point out what the hurt child is feeling and why, prompting your child to apologize.
Around the 18-month mark, a child begins to understand that other people have feelings just like his, so this is a perfect time to start teaching kids that their behavior affects others.
3. Teach Children to Make Eye Contact and Deliver a Firm Handshake When Meeting New People
Children do not know intuitively, and so need to be taught how to meet new people and greet those they already know.
Role-playing is a fantastic way to teach this.
Practice making good eye contact, using a firm handshake with the right hand, and courteous salutations such as, “Nice to meet you!” or “Good to see you again!”
The more scenarios you practice, the better equipped your children will be, especially if they are naturally shy or uncomfortable around new people.
The best way to overcome ‘shyness’ is by equipping them your children with skills that empower them to overcome it.
4. Eat Dinner Together As a Family
Family dinner is critical to your children’s well-being for many reasons.
Among other benefits, it is a great time for parents to teach and reinforce good table etiquette.
Basic things like setting the table properly, holding and using utensils correctly, engaging in appropriate dinner conversation, asking for dishes to be passed rather than reaching across the table, excusing oneself when getting up from the table, clearing your place, and pitching in with cleanup.
Meals don’t always need to be as formal as if the queen were visiting, but in order to be a contributing member of society, children should know proper basic table manners.
Growing up, our meals were very relaxed and not particularly proper, although we did typically follow basic etiquette.
My grandma, who is a very proper lady, would invite us out to dinner individually once each year, and would use those opportunities to teach us the intricacies of social grace.
I appreciate all of her lessons so much, because I can feel comfortable and at ease in a variety of social situations, from high tea at Buckingham Palace to a more relaxed brunch at the neighborhood diner.
That is a gift I want my children to have.
5. Teach Your Children That If They Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, They Should Not Say Anything at All
Part of raising a polite and well-mannered child is teaching them that the world does not revolve around them, and is not interested in what they dislike.
They should keep negative opinions to themselves. Further, they should never comment on other people’s physical characteristics unless it’s to compliment them, which is always welcome.
They should not make fun of anyone for any reason.
Teasing others shows insecurity and weakness, while standing up for others shows strength.
6. Assign Chores
Cleaning, gardening, and yard work are all skills that must be learned in order to function productively in the world.
Teaching your children these skills through chores while young helps them to understand the necessities of life – cooking, cleaning, working – and that their needs are being met through the sacrifices of others.
This helps them to be more grateful and less self-centered.
As they participate in family work, contributing to their families well-being in meaningful ways, they feel valued and learn confidence in their abilities.
7. Teach Children How to Graciously Receive Gifts and Services and How to Appropriately Demonstrate Gratitude
Just the other day, my youngest daughter spent the afternoon creating a gift for her brother’s birthday.
She painted several pictures, pasted them together into a book, and added a pocket to the last page, in which she placed all of the money she had. It was only a few coins.
She carefully wrapped her gift and gave it to her older brother.
He looked at it, laughed (though kindly) and handed it back to her, telling her she should keep her money and save it.
She was devastated (yes, I need to work on this principle with him!). We’ve probably all had that experience – having a gift rejected – and it hurts.
Teach your children how to receive gifts graciously, even when a gift is disappointing.
Teach them how to empathize with the giver and how to demonstrate gratitude.
There are extensive and varying views regarding the old-fashioned practice of writing actual snail-mail thank-you notes.
Instead of going into all of that, I’ll just say that in the age of texts, a handwritten thank-you note can have a powerful effect.
Especially when written to an older person for whom mail is very valuable.
Whether you encourage your children to hand write thank-you notes, send an email, or just make a phone call or send a text, you will teach your children a valuable lesson about gratitude.
8. Do Not Let Your Children Interrupt
Children will seek and demand our attention every second if we allow them to.
It’s part of that center-of-the-universe affliction kids are prone to.
It is our responsibility as parents to help our children discover their actual place in the universe, and one way we do that is by teaching them to show respect.
When adults are conversing or busy, children should wait, except in case of emergency. When there is a good reason to interrupt (blood or fire) they should begin with “excuse me” and wait to be acknowledged.
A great method you can teach your children is to approach and take your hand if they want your attention. You then know that they need you and you will make yourself available to them shortly.
Teaching Your Children Good Manners is a Long Game
It won’t happen overnight, so keep your expectations in check.
Your 2-year-old can very well say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ but probably lacks real understanding of what they mean.
Even when you feel like you’ve taught things sufficiently, you may not get the results you desire.
Kids don’t always see things the way we do. It’s not a bad reflection on your parenting skills (or make you feel inadequate as a mom either).
Although it sometimes seems fruitless, your efforts are worthwhile.
Kids who know social graces and etiquette have a distinct advantage. Good manners will help your children’s social development.
From dating to careers, good manners are expected, and people with good manners are more successful.
Over to you – what do you do to teach manners to your child? Tell us in the comments!