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Ask Dr. Sears: Teaching Good Manners

Q. At 7 and 8 years old, my sons have yet to learn when to say "please" and "thank you," or how to make good eye contact with others. For years, I have tried to instill these basic manners through discussion, example, and gentle reminders. What can I do to help them exhibit these important social graces?

A. One of the most valuable tools you can give your children is the ability to connect with others. Good manners, politeness, and eye contact are the foundation for successfully connecting, so you are wise to give these values top priority in your parenting. But it is frustrating that some children just don't seem to get it no matter how hard you try. These manner-modeling tips should help:

Practice the "we" principle 

Children between the ages of 5 and 10 are searching for the norm: They are figuring out what is right and wrong, and how they are expected to behave. In our family, we call this the "we" principle: "This is how we talk, this is how we act, this is what we believe, this is what we eat," etc. These "we" norms become rooted in children's personalities and will naturally become part of their behavior.

Do not underestimate how much of your parental modeling is sinking in. Children who are raised in polite homes do not always act as mannerly around their parents as they do around others. You may reap the rewards of your efforts secondhand, when friends or teachers say to you, "Oh, how polite your children are!"

Expect respect 

Manners and politeness show respect for another person. Young children need to learn that looking people in the eyes when talking to them and addressing them by a name or title shows respect. Teach them to always address a person by an appropriate name or title: "Mrs. Jones, may I..." or "Thank you, Dr. Susan..." Children want to be liked by people they meet. We tell our children, "When you speak nicely to a person, it shows them respect, and that person will like you for that."

I have a few families from England in my pediatric practice whose children are extremely polite. I asked one set of parents what their secret was. Their answer: "We simply expect them to be polite." In their home, they presented politeness and manners not as an add-on nicety, but rather as an expected and normal way of speaking and acting.

Use peer-pressure politeness 

Foster friendships with children and families who model the manners and ways of speaking and acting you want your children to learn. Time spent with well-mannered friends will reinforce the expectations you have for your children; your sons will start to believe that this is the way everyone must act.

Use appropriate eye contact 

Here's a method for engaging that we frequently use in our family. We call it "connect before you direct." When giving your children directions, such as asking them to clean up their rooms or helping in the kitchen, squat to their eye level and engage them in eye-to-eye contact. To get their attention, use their name and open with, "I need your eyes. I need your ears." Make your eye contact appropriate: engaging and friendly, but not so intense that your children perceive it as controlling rather than connecting.

Talk to your children the way you want them to talk to you and to others. You may not see the payoff for years to come—but one day, your teenage sons will surprise you by saying "thank you" to Aunt Nancy for their birthday present or politely asking Grandma, "May I please have some more mashed potatoes?"