On Manners

by Kelly Villaruel

Appropriate, considerate and polite behaviors help children to form good manners that are socially acceptable.  Good manners show respect for oneself and others. They are life skills that contribute to social and emotional growth and development and children will learn to become attentive to others. Good manners play a starring role in our children’s future.

Good manners helps children to get along with others.  People are more likely to associate with others who have good manners. When children practice using their good manners, as a parent, we don’t worry about sending our children out into the world.  We do not feel a certain stress of our child going on a playdate. In fact, teaching our children good manners helps us to be able to relax in one area just a little bit, which is helpful, since we hold so much all the time. 

Since children are natural imitators, the best way to teach manners is to model being polite and saying “please” and “thank you”, and don’t forget “may I?” and “yes please”. Now, it is important to note that we do not have to say please and thank you to our children with everything in an effort to always be polite when it is clearly not what the situation needs.  For example, if a child hits a friend, it is appropriate to simply say “we don’t hit our friends” in a firm tone of voice.  It is not a request that is optional. Like with all guidance (versus discipline) models, this is a long term process. It doesn’t happen overnight but with consistency and helping children find words to use, it becomes a habit.  And the truth is, it is hard to remember good manners all the time, even as adults!

So when a child says “I want water”, we can help them to find a more polite way to ask by simply showing them how and saying “May I have some water, please?”  They will repeat the question using those words. Asking for things is how they know how to get their needs met.  Saying “I want water” or “I want an apple” is what they know and if we jump to get those things for them and do not help them to find a kinder way to ask it, we are, in fact, reinforcing that way of asking.  And while it may be cute when they are little, when they get older it is not cute anymore and they are simply seen as rude and demanding. ( I have definitely been there, I have 3 adult children.). In the end, it’s not their fault because we did not teach them a different way.  If “I want that” gets them what they want, and it works, then it is an effective method for them and they would not know different unless they are shown.

When my son was in grade school, he had the most amazing librarian.  She was an elder and she had been saying for years that she thought children were not learning manners anymore so she worked to teach them.  One thing she told my son that really stuck with him is “If you don’t write a thank you card, don’t expect any more gifts”. She would then practice with the children  and give them books from the library as gifts and have them write thank you cards. My son still writes thank you cards for every gift he receives, and even when someone goes out of their way to help him.  Gratitude and empathy are a huge part of our culture and through good manners and practicing gratitude, it boosts children’s self esteem as they begin to see themselves as recipients rather than takers.  They build empathy as they start to see that people are going the extra mile for them. 

It is important to know that, even with all the practice and modeling that happens every day, children will not be able to do it all the time.  It is just too hard to remember all the time, while their brains are still developing in their early years, but the more they practice and have gentle reminders, the better they get. Children need repetition for things to stick. Using songs and having a lot  patience with the learning will go a long way in helping good manners to become a habit.  It can be practiced when playing with dolls, at meal times, and generally all day long.  Be clear about where good manners are a must.  4-5 year olds LOVE potty talk and it gets a rise out of adults and so they have to play with the “power” they feel when there’s such a strong reaction to it.  One thing we do at Woolly Bears is that we practice our very best manners when we sit down on the blanket together to eat but when they are anywhere else they can use the potty talk.  They LOVE to remind each other of this too! But, like all things in early childhood, doing the hard work up front makes it much easier later on.

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