"Mabel, Mabel, if you're able, keep your elbows off the table." That was the chant in my house when we were growing up, the reminder that it wasn't okay to put your elbows on the table. Nor was it okay to use your sleeve to wipe your face, burp out loud, ask rudely for food to be passed, and a host of other things.
Manners and social graces bring a degree of civility our world. They are a common language, a protocol, a script that eases transitions and demonstrates respect for people and for order.
There isn't a parent alive who doesn't want her child to "use your manners." (And many a parent is so embarrassed when hers is the only child who doesn't say please or thank you, seeing it as a reflection on her parenting.) Teaching manners is one thing; having a child who uses his manners all the time is quite another. In fact, I know lots of adults who don't use their manners all of the time. There sure is a whole lot for children to learn and to do when it comes to manners and social graces.
Two things must be kept in mind when it comes to teaching and expecting mannerly behaviors from your child: his temperament and his development. Development refers to the child's ability to understand the need for his manners. As a child develops empathy, the ability to see from someone else's perspective or walk in another's shoes, manners make sense. Before then, it is just a parroting of what you have told him to do. If you say please, you get the juice.
The second factor is the individual temperament with which every child is born. That temperament informs his every interaction. Some child who are on more "introverted" or "sensitive" or "slow-to-warm up"(I don't use the word "shy," as it has a negative connotation), will have a harder time using manners that involve other people. It's really hard for this child to look someone in the eye and say hello or thank you.
Here are some tips for cultivating your child's use of manners.
Model using the manners you want your child to use. Children are fabulous copycats. But don't expect them to use their manners if you don't use yours.
Catch your child doing the right thing and reinforce it. When your child uses the manners you want, sing his praises, being very specific about what he did.
Work on only one thing at a time. The child has a greater chance of being successful if he is not overwhelmed. Decide your priority (telephone behavior, face-to-face greetings, table manners, saying please) and give that your all, letting the others slide for the time being.
Plan ahead. If you know you will be in a situation that will call for manners, let you child know what will happen and what you expect, keeping in mind your child's temperament. Come up with a plan that will work for him. For example, if you know there is no way he is going to look your boss in the eye, shake his hand, and say "how do you do," decide with him what he might do, like look up and smile or wave.
Never embarrass your child. It will only dig you in deeper. Out of respect for your child, when with others, get down on his level and whisper the prompt or correct the ill-mannered behavior.
There are no "magic words." Saying please or thank you are not magic, they are necessary. Expect them. Be prepared with an appropriate, logical consequence for non-compliance. For example, the child who doesn't say "thank you" for the gift, may not use the gift.
Stop nagging. Don't be the please police. Not only is nagging an ineffective form of parenting, but it teaches your child to tune you out. He can't stand your nagging, just like you can't stand his whining.
Create a signal. To remind your child what is expected, create a little signal (an ear tug, a tongue click) to let him know that you are waiting to hear a show of manners. It also lets him know why you are ignoring his request to just give him the juice he is demanding.
Give information. While it seems obvious, parents often forget to explain to the child why he needs to use his manners. Saying thank you to the playdate's mother makes her feel good, and it's one of the things we do to make other people feel good.
Don't expect perfection. Most people don't use their manners all of the time. Children, in particular, get busy and distracted, and they simply forget. They are get tired, hungry, and cranky, all of which sabotage using manners. Make sure your expectations are reasonable.
Originally published in 2009.
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