Age 1 to 2: Don't expect much
Even young toddlers can begin to learn the basics of polite behavior. Just don't expect them to fully understand—or practice—what you're teaching right now.
Make manners part of the conversation. Thinking about other people's feelings is the root of politeness, so encourage your child to do this. Explain that when you help the neighbor search for her lost keys in the playground, she feels good and so do we. Point out how kind the cashier in the supermarket is. Talking to young children about caring for others helps them absorb this value without fully understanding it.
Age 2 to 3: Civilization Dawns
At this stage, they're still operating with limited self-control, but at around 36 months, new and stronger brain activity helps improve memory, language and impulse control.
Take action. You can't expect your child to have good manners without your help. So if she has taken another kid's toy at the playground, step in and insist she return it, informing her that if she doesn't, there will be consequences. And don't say, "I'd really like you to think about giving the toy back." It's too much to expect a child to make that decision. The fact is, she doesn't have a choice in the matter, and she has to know that.
Age 3 to 5: Progress, not perfection
Preschoolers have new understanding and patience now, which means that taking turns becomes a bit easier. Decent manners can start to be a habit.
Know when to supervise. Sally Larsen, a mom of two and the owner of a kids' hair salon, has seen a lot of bad manners from both kids and parents. While kids twirl salon chairs, steal lollipops from the treat jar, and complain to stylists, too many moms read magazines or zone out. Now that your preschooler is more mischievous than ever, he needs attention from the manners police—Mom and Dad. If there's a problem, exert your parental authority.
Age 5 to 7: Manners on display
Kids this age are more able to listen to directions. At school, they're being asked to be quiet, take turns, and raise their hands. Manners will help them get along.
Maintain boundaries. While it might be tempting to tell your child that it hurt when she said your new dress was gross, don't muddy the discussion by introducing your emotional life. Instead, keep to what is and isn't acceptable. According to Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., author of Spoiling Childhood, "It's better to say 'It's not okay to talk to me that way.' Children hunger for, and need, your guidance."
3 easy ways to teach why manners matter
1. Use examples your child can relate to. Try "If you don't say thank you, it sounds like you're being bossy."
2. Ask how she'd feel. Sometimes a child needs to be reminded that she's not the only one who gets her feelings hurt. When she forgets to say "please" before using her brother's crayons, try asking how she'd feel if he used one of her toys without permission.
3. Avoid "Because I said so." This response won't help kids learn about caring and respect. To stop rules from seeming arbitrary, explain why the polite way is the best way in a given situation.