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Ask Dr. Sears: Mind Your Manners

Q. I'm wondering at what age I can start teaching my son manners—for example, when to say "please" and "thank you," as well as when he should be expected to learn proper table etiquette. He's almost eighteen months old now. Is it still too early to expect him to understand? Also, do you have any tips on how to help him catch on quickly?

A. Did you know that you've already been teaching your child politeness and etiquette—since birth? Manners, in adults and children, are based on empathy, i.e.: the ability to imagine how your words or actions will make another person feel. When you simply comfort your crying infant, or feed her when she's hungry, you're teaching her the meaning of empathy—by understanding, and then meeting, her wants and needs. Again, respect and sensitivity for others is the root of manners. This is one reason why I stress the importance of attachment-style parenting, because it's the best way to connect with your baby and instill this valuable life lesson. Here are a few techniques you can use to teach your little one to be mindful of his manners:

Model polite phrases 

Beginning talkers—and listeners—are copycats. At 18 months old, your toddler will parrot the words he hears you say, even if he doesn't understand what they mean, so use this to your advantage. Say polite phrases and words such as "Thank you," "Please," "You're welcome," and "Pardon me" as often as possible when speaking and responding to him—at the table, and everywhere else. This will help him get comfortable hearing and using these words in the context of normal daily conversation. And by the time he's 2, he'll have figured out that he gets his requests granted sooner when he tacks on a polite "please" at the end.

Use proper names 

A person's name can be used to convey respect. So, one of the most valuable lessons in etiquette that you can teach your children is to address people appropriately. I still remember my grandfather teaching me the importance of properly addressing people when I was a boy. This turned out to be great help later in life: When I was a young college student, I applied for a summer sales job, along with many other applicants who were truthfully better qualified than myself. I ended up getting the job, and when I asked my interviewers why I got the position even though I was a pre-med student and the other applicants were all business majors, they told me it was because I had personally addressed them by name. So, let your child see you address your friends and acquaintances by name: "Hi, Aunt Susie" or "Hello, Mr. Carson."

Expect manners 

Kids need to know that this is how they're supposed to behave all the time—not just what they should do to get what they want. Tell your child, "This is how I expect you to act." If you make etiquette a natural part of your family's daily activities, your child will grow up understanding that good manners are more than just an occasional or optional nicety—they're a way to show respect and appreciation for others, for life.