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Ask Dr. Sears: Teaching Manners

Q  My eight-year-old daughter is a very picky eater and won't even sit still at the dinner table. This is not usually a problem at home, but now we're traveling cross-country to spend Thanksgiving with my mother-in-law. Is there any way I can teach my daughter good table manners by then?

A. Naturally, you want your polite little child to impress your mother-in-law, and it's easy to believe that your child's behavior reflects on your mothering. The truth is that manners are social skills, which every child must learn on her own. Yet some children pick up manners more easily than others. So don't take it personally if your daughter is not Miss Manners just when you want her to be. Try these tips to help your child learn social graces:


Expect manners 

In my experience, most polite children are brought up in a polite home that expects good manners. One day I noticed an English family entering a hotel before an older woman. The father looked at his two sons and said, "Now, Chaps, do hold the door for the lady," which they did. When I asked why his children were so well-mannered, he replied, "We expect it." I call this the "we principle""This is how we act in our home." Let your child pick up the attitude that manners are simply the normal way that people relate to one another. Manners are not extra or optional, they're simply a normal and expected part of daily living.

Model manners 

You don't have to make a special point of being polite. It's as they say: What little monkeys see, little monkeys do. Let your child hear a lot of "thank you," "please," "excuse me," and "you're welcome" as you talk to your child and interact with other family members and friends. Children from five to ten years are searching for the norm: "How am I supposed to act and relate to people?" Simply portray manners as the norm. Again, you want to send the message, "This is what we do in our home."

Address children by name 

We have always tried to use the name of our child when opening a request, such as: "Hayden, will you please help me with the dishes?" Our children picked up on this social nicety and address us by: "Mom, may I..." or "Dad, would you..." In fact, children are smart enough to pick up on the fact that they are more likely to get a request granted if they ask politely by adding a "please" or "may I".

Compliment politeness 

Even though good manners themselves won't always get children what they want, you should comment on their politeness. Let them know that you appreciate it. Yet, don't force manners. It's okay to dangle an occasional "say please" over a child before giving her what she wants, but don't always make this a condition of granting a request. You want your child to learn that good manners are a normal part of polite speech.

Ask for eye contact

One of the most important social graces is that your child look at people when she talks to them. The way you talk to your child teaches your child how to talk to others. When addressing your child, squat to her eye level and engage her in eye-to-eye contact to get her attention. If her eyes wander, simply say, "(Name), I need your eyes. I need your ears." Return the same polite eye contact when your child addresses you. Yet, try not to make your eye contact too intense. You don't want your child to perceive this politeness as controlling rather than connecting.

Use peer pressure 

Purposely invite well-mannered friends and families to the house. Let your child catch the spirit of good manners from well-mannered people. This will reinforce to your child that good manners are not only "what we do in our home," they are the norm.

Remember, manners are caught, not taught. The same goes for table manners. Engage her in a conversation that has meaning to her. Encourage her to tell her interesting stories to her grandparents. Let your child see your manners at the table and insert gentle reminders when needed. If you want your child to sit still at the table longer, you may have to make it interesting enough to do so. Children often want to leave the table because they either eat too quickly or get bored. Serve her small portions and refill as necessary. Get her to talk in-between bites. In general, just talk and respond to your child with the same politeness you want from her.