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Learning Manners


Every child is capable of age-appropriate manners. You can't expect young children to be perfectly well-behaved all the time, but you can get them in the habit of practicing polite behavior early on, so you can lay a strong foundation for positive social interactions. Here's how, age by age.

Getting an early start

Toddlers as young as 18 months can begin to grasp the rules of politeness. They may not fully understand what you're teaching them, but you can:

Put good manners in context. Thinking about other people's feelings is the root of polite behavior. So explain to your child that when you help your neighbor hunt for her lost keys at the playground, she feels good and so do you. Point out how kind the cashier is at the supermarket. Talking to young children about caring for others helps them absorb this value, even without fully understanding it.

Take temperament into account. Some 15-month-olds are outgoing and wave hello and goodbye to everyone. Others are slower to warm up, and that's okay. For a toddler who isn't comfortable being the center of attention at a birthday party, being polite may mean she whispers "Thank you" into your ear and asks you to convey the message.

Keep it simple at the dinner table. Toddlers don't have the motor or emotional skills all at once to practice good table etiquette, so start with one rule, such as "When you eat, you sit at the table" or "No feet on the table." Repeat often.

Preschoolers' etiquette

At this age, kids have improved memory and language and better impulse control, which means it's easier for them to learn and retain good manners. What to do:

Intervene when necessary. If your son has taken another child's toy at the playground, step in and insist that he return it. Tell him that if he won't let go of the toy, there'll be a consequence. And don't imply that he's the one who gets to make a decision about the toy by saying, "I'd really like you to think about giving the toy back"—he shouldn't have a choice in the matter.

Use favorite characters. When your child refuses to say "I'm sorry," tell her that she's behaving like one of Cinderella's stepsisters. It provides your child with a concrete example to learn from.

Offer praise. If your child says "please" without being told to, compliment him on his manners, and reward him with what he asked for (within reason, of course!). Most 3-year-olds have the verbal skills to say, "Please may I have more grapes," so let him have the extra grapes.

Try imaginary play. With 3- and 4-year-year-olds, remembering table manners at a pretend tea party is a fun way to drive politeness lessons home. Practice the small table rituals like a napkin on the lap, not starting until everyone has a treat, and even introducing "guests," whether they're stuffed animals or siblings.

Supervise. Kids learn from repetition, so be prepared to play the manners police consistently. If there's a problem, exert your parental authority.

Teaching kindergartners and grade-schoolers

As kids get older, they're more able to follow directions, and they love to put their manners on display. At school, they're being asked to be quiet, take turns, and raise their hands. Here's how you can help your child's manners along:

Discuss expectations. As your child's verbal skills improve, talk about what she considers proper manners. Tell her about your expectations, too, and listen to what she says is hard for her to do. If she can't sit still while your family finishes dinner, let her leave her chair to move around, but make her stay within talking distance. (Also, kids are more likely to follow rules if they think they invented them, so have her come up with her own ground rules for manners.)

Maintain boundaries. While it might be tempting to tell your child that it hurt when she said your new dress was gross, try to keep the discussion to what is and isn't acceptable. A better way to handle it is to tell her, "It's not okay to talk to me that way."

Teaching young kids manners is an on-going process. Try to be patient, and keep your expectations in line with what your child is capable of achieving at his age. Your time and patience will be rewarded every time your child says "please" and uses his napkin at mealtime.