Teaching Young Kids Manners

Jan 5, 2010

One of our greatest challenges as parents is to teach our children everything they need to function appropriately in the world. Initially, children learn the basics of language and communication and we think we have completed a major milestone.

Then, we realize that all of those words can be shouted or whispered at just the wrong time, leading us to moments of incredible embarrassment. We all know that children say just what they think, lacking the social filter that allows adults to think things without saying them aloud.

So, what do you do when you are in a store and your child says, “Mommy, that man has no hair”? No, you do not need to find the nearest display rack and crawl inside the clothes. Instead, here are some ways to teach manners involving social norms and cues to your little ones, based on four common issues.

Your child says something about someone in front of them.

Instead of shushing them and pretending it was never said, take the time to instill an acceptance lesson. You can remind them that all people look, act, talk, __(fill in the blank)___ differently, and point out something that they have that sets them apart from their peers (speaks another language, has a birthmark or scar, etc). Saying these things out loud not only hopefully pacifies the person that may have been offended, but it makes it less of an issue. Remember, kids do things unintentionally until they realize it gets a reaction!

Your child will not say hello and/or greet people politely.

This is a pretty common complaint from the parents that I work with in my practice, especially when it involves relatives that come to their house. First, I would encourage you not to force a child to hug a relative that they do not know well. Would you want to be told to hug a random person and be expected to do it without question? However, expecting that a child will say hello and acknowledge a visitor is appropriate. Ask a neighbor or friend to come over and give your child a chance to practice hearing the doorbell, getting up from what they are doing, going to the door with you and saying hello. If you are unable to have a real visitor, set up a doll house and practice with the toy family. Go through standard greeting conversations, like “Hello! How are you? I am fine. Come in.”

Your child will not say goodbye when friends are leaving.

This is usually in conjunction with not wanting to stop playing long enough to do so. This is another issue where practicing the routine is important. Given the opportunity to learn to pause whatever they are involved in and rehearse walking their friends to the door will be crucial to making it a habit. The same techniques apply as greetings – ask a neighbor/friend to help or use toys.

Your child complains about gifts if he doesn’t like them.

Kids are developmentally appropriately self-focused until they learn empathy that comes with abstract reasoning skills. So, it is normal for a child to tell you they are disappointed with a present or that they wanted something else. This is another proactive issue, wherein you explain that he does not have to get gifts at all, and any gifts that he does get are to be appreciated. This is an easy thing to practice by wrapping gifts that you know he won’t be excited about (socks) and have him open them to practice his response of “thank you”. He does not need to lie and tell the giver how much he likes it, just show appreciation.

As you can see, practicing manners is how kids learn them. You cannot expect a child to innately know how to be polite. Just like we drill “what do you say?” to teach please and thank you, we have to work on building manners and social norms as well. The good news is that with a few chances to practice, your kids will be the most well-mannered on the block!

* Some information taken from American Baby.

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