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Teaching Manners

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When our children were very young, we didn't much care about their manners. As infants, 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 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 preschoolers could draw a picture of the universe, they'd put themselves at the very center. They want to be first, best, and strongest, and they want everyone around them to notice. 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 wants more green beans (okay, white rice), you prompt him to say "please." And when your preschooler receives a present, you encourage her by asking, "What do you say to Grandma?"

While saying "please" and "thank you" is a great start, it is only a start; there's more than that to good manners. Overall, teaching manners is about instilling good behavior in a variety of situations. Here's how to do it:

  • 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 preschooler will develop a sudden, irrepressible need to talk to you or show you something. Trying to stop that need is as futile as trying to stop earthquakes from happening in California. What you can do, though, is teach your child to politely say "excuse me," or squeeze your arm instead of screaming. As she 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 the strategies, respond immediately. Ignoring a gentle arm squeeze sends the message to your child that screaming is a better option — at least it gets your 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 pick up her toys, or 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 behavior. 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. Preschoolers really want to do the right thing — even if they don't know what the right thing is — and they're suckers for compliments. So when your child behaves nicely, be lavish with praise. And be specific: "I'm so proud of the way you said 'excuse me' when you were trying to get my attention," or "You did exactly the right thing when you told your baby brother you were sorry you dropped a block on his toe."
  • Respect your child. If your child behaves rudely, take her aside and discuss the issue privately. Criticizing your child in front of others will embarrass her and could cause her 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 she demands that you go to the living room and bring the teddy bear she left there, tell her she'll have to get it herself. And if she doesn't thank you for pouring you the big glass of milk she asked for, take it away until she does.

    Finally, keep your expectations reasonable. Although there are books and DVDs out there that claim they’ll produce a well-mannered, delightful child in a matter of days, save your money. 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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