Teaching manners: More than please and thank you

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

Question: I'm a little old fashioned, but I believe in manners. When is the right time to teach them to children?

Answer: In the early stages of parenthood, we don't care much about manners. Our infant's loud burps (and other bodily sounds) usually elicit laughter, and as kids learn to speak, we consider their inadvertent insults or seemingly rude behaviour rather adorable.

But as children get into preschool and start having playdates and doing the birthday party circuit, manners become increasingly important.

Unfortunately, teaching manners isn't easy. If preschoolers could draw a picture of the universe, they'd put themselves at the very centre. They want to be first, best, strongest, and they want everyone around them to notice. They couldn't care less about anyone else's needs.

You've probably already started teaching your child manners. When he wants more green beans (okay, white rice), you prompt him to say "please." And when she receives a present, you encourage her by asking, "What do you say to Grandma?" While "please" and "thank you" are a great start, teaching manners is about instilling good behaviour in a variety of situations. Here's how to do it:

Create strategies. The second you answer the phone or start talking with someone, your preschooler will develop an irrepressible need to talk to you or show you something. Trying to stop that need is as futile as trying to stop your child from breathing.

What you can do, though, is teach her to politely say "excuse me," or squeeze your arm instead of screaming. As she gets older explain the difference between good reasons to interrupt (a fire in the kitchen) and bad ones (needing a snack). If your child uses one of the strategies, respond immediately. Ignoring a gentle arm squeeze sends the message to your child that screaming is a better option - at least it gets your attention.

Talk the talk. Manners and good behaviour aren't only for company or going out to eat. They need to be part of your everyday routine. If you don't say "please" when asking your child to pick up his toys, or you skip the "thank you" when your spouse gives you a Valentine's Day present, you're undermining all the great lessons you're trying to teach.

Walk the walk. Similarly, holding the door for the people behind you and helping an old man cross the street models polite behaviour. Screaming at the bozo who cut you off in traffic does exactly the opposite.

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Skip the lectures. Too many parents launch into long-winded sermons like, "Stop that yelling! How many times do I have to tell you to be quieter in the house?" Short, to-the-point phrases like, "Inside voice, please" are much more effective. Same with behaviour. If your child picks up his food with his hands, instead of lecturing her on the history of flatware the United States, just hand her a fork.

More carrots, fewer sticks. Preschoolers really want to do the right thing - even if they don't know what that is - and they're suckers for compliments. So when he behaves nicely, lavish the praise. And be specific: "I'm so proud of the way you said 'excuse me' when you were trying to get my attention," or "You did exactly the right thing when you told our baby brother you were sorry you dropped a block on his toe."

Establish - and enforce consequences. The manners bar should get higher as your child gets older. So if she demands that you go to the living room and bring up the stuffed toy he left there, tell her she'll have to get it herself. And if she doesn't thank you for pouring you the big glass of milk she asked for, take it away until she does.

Keep expectations reasonable. Teaching good manners is a process that will take years. In the meantime, be prepared to remind your child dozens of times every day before the message truly sinks in.

Tribune News Service