Manners Matter: How to Teach Kids the Basics of Etiquette

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As parents and caregivers, helping our children develop social skills, including how to interact politely in everyday situations, is one of the most important jobs we have. Teaching your kids to use good manners is also one simple way to instill the values of kindness and respect—which the world needs now more than ever. The key is to start early and be consistent. Here’s how:

Use polite language.

Learning to use polite words and phrases is the foundation of good manners. The easiest way to teach kids to say please, thank you, you’re welcome and excuse me, is to make sure they hear you using those words every day and in a variety of situations. This doesn’t mean they will always remember—you can remind them—but if you are setting a good example, eventually your child will start using polite words without being nudged.

Watch your words.

Young children don’t have the ability to filter what is appropriate to say and what isn’t, which can lead to some embarrassing situations. Chances are your child will notice people who look different and want to comment on or ask about those differences. They may also announce that they don’t like a meal or a gift they were given—in front of the person who gave it. Luckily, with age and practice, kids will learn to think before speaking. In the meantime, explain to your children that saying something unkind or making a comment about someone’s appearance in public can be hurtful. Tell your kids that they can always share their thoughts and questions with you later, once you are alone.

Teach to greet.

One of the most important social skills your child can learn is how to properly greet other people. First, emphasize eye contact. To make it easier for a young child, tell them to look to see what color eyes the person has. Practice simple responses to common questions like, “How are you?” Role playing can help your child feel more confident answering these questions and your coaching will ensure that they don’t give out too much information about themselves.

Practice patience.

For a young child, waiting to speak can feel like torture. When a child has a thought, they want to express it immediately regardless of what is happening around them or who they are interrupting. But how do you get your child to learn the habit of waiting his turn to speak? Verbal reminders are important, but often fail to reinforce the lesson. Try a visual cue like special toy or talking stick instead. Say, “When I hand you this toy, it is your turn to talk.”

Be a good guest.

Being a polite guest is important especially as children get older. Your child should always follow the parent’s rules when at a friend’s house, clean up after herself, use polite language, and thank the parents and friend for having her over. Talk through these manners before you bring your child to a playdate.

Teach table manners.

Meal time with young children often feels overwhelming, which means etiquette is the last thing on a parent’s mind. But table manners are a critical social skill. Kids as young as three and four can begin to learn proper behavior during meals. Start with the basics and eventually they will become habit: Wash your hands before meals; put your napkin in your lap; do not talk with your mouth full of food; say please and thank you; and clear your dishes from the table.

Be consistent and patient.

Learning manners can take time. Remember to praise kids when they use good manners. When they don’t, simply point out that they need to use the appropriate word or behavior and move on. Continue teaching by example. Using manners is something we do every single day, so as long as you instill the basics and work to improve them, being polite will become a habit and your children will be confident in social situations as they get older.

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