As a new parent, it never occurred to me that I needed to teach my kids good manners. I assumed they’d see how polite I was and they’d follow my example. It wasn’t until our oldest was three that I realized just how wrong I was. This realization came one day in the car when my wife was trying to tell me about her day as Junior interrupted us every ten seconds. After several minutes, I thought, “Why is he being so rude?”
Then I had an epiphany – he didn’t know he was being rude. He simply expected that we’d give our undivided attention whenever he spoke. This expectation was actually something we’d ingrained in him from the day he started talking. Back then, we hung on his every word. Hearing him speak was so magical that we’d drop everything to listen. Every “Dada” and “Mama” melted our hearts.
When he turned two, he started piecing words into sentences and it was so darned cute. Because he still wasn’t speaking that much, we could usually afford to stop and listen whenever he spoke.
Then he turned three and suddenly we had a kid who never stopped talking. Ever. Words came spilling out of his mouth every second of every day. While some of his material was adorable (“Is the rain coming at 30 o’clock?”) and hilarious (“Daddy, you’re a dirty man!” or “My Band-Aid got all the blood out!”), most of it was not especially earth-shattering. And because he said so much, we found it both impractical and impossible to give him our attention every time he spoke.
Unfortunately, though, that didn’t cut it for Junior. After years of conditioning, he expected us to pay attention the moment his mouth opened. When that didn’t happen, he’d interrupt us over and over again until we acknowledged him. Eventually, his interruptions got so bad that Sam and I could barely have a simple conversation, like the one we were trying to have in the car, without him butting in roughly eight million times.
When we got home that day, Sam and I decided that something needed to change. As we discussed ways to work on Junior’s interrupting issues, we decided to focus on teaching him good manners generally in the hope that he would eventually realize his needs don’t always come first.
While it did take some time, I can now proudly announce that after two years of etiquette training, Junior is one exceptionally polite child. Not only have the frequency of his interruptions significantly decreased, but his current intrusions are always accompanied with an “excuse me.” He says “please” and “thank you” whenever he needs things, and he even instructs his sister about polite ways to act. Of course, he still has the capacity to be just as frustrating as any other five-year-old, but at least he says “No, thank you!” instead of simply shouting “No!” when I send him to his room.
If you’d like to see a similar etiquette improvement in your child, check out our list below to see the ten ways we taught Junior to be more polite.
1 – Set a Polite Tone in Public and Private Settings
Our kids copy everything we do – they dress like us, they act like us, they talk like us. Basically, they’re little versions of us running around. So, the first step in teaching our kids to be polite is being polite ourselves, both in public and private.
Personally, I find it way harder to be polite in private than in public. When I’m at home, I have the hardest time offering up a “thank you” to my kids when it takes them 15 minutes to bring me a fork from the dishwasher because they “keep forgetting.” But, I have to keep reminding myself, “They copy everything you do” and if I want them to be polite with everyone, even in trying situations, I have to model correct behavior (sometimes I hate having to be the mature one).
2 – Discuss Proper Etiquette/Set Clear Expectations
Kids need to know exactly what’s expected of them if they’re going to perform. So, when we began our concerted effort to teach politeness, we sat down with Junior and Addy and laid out a few age-appropriate “polite rules.” We talked about things like saying “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome.”
When you have a similar conversation with your kids, don’t worry about getting all the etiquette rules in the world onto the list on your first shot – you can periodically update these rules as needed. For us, our weekly family council is a great forum to do so.
3 – Start by Teaching “Please” and “Thank You”
Because kids are in constant need of adult support, it’s relatively easy to teach them to say “please” and “thank you.” When we first started teaching these polite words to our kids, they had to be reminded often. Now, because they’ve had so many chances to practice in multiple venues (home, church, school, the park, restaurants, etc.), it’s practically second nature.
One caveat: we didn’t want our kids thinking we would always give in if they were polite. So, we emphasized that even though we expected them to say “please,” doing so didn’t mean they automatically got their way.
4 – Have Kids Address Adults as “Mr.” and “Ms.”
I know Sam and I are a bit old-fashioned here, but we have our kids address adults as “Mr.” or “Ms.” We know that not everyone does this, and we certainly don’t think it’s an absolute must. However, we feel it helps teach good manners by conveying to kids that adults need to be addressed with respect.
5 – Teach Kids that They Can’t Arbitrarily Interrupt Conversation
When we first started teaching this concept to Junior, we tried explaining the overarching principle that his needs do not trump everyone else’s. As a three-year-old, he didn’t really grasp that concept so we simplified things and told him he needed to say, “Excuse me, Mommy and Daddy” each time he wanted to interrupt us. We explained that sometimes we would tell him to wait, but that we’d always get back to him if he said, “Excuse me.”
While this approach wasn’t a cure-all, it did significantly reduce the interruptions from Junior per adult conversation.
6 – Practice with a “What Do You Say if . . .” game
Kids love playing make believe. So, one way we teach good manners is asking our kids to imagine specific scenarios where they would need to demonstrate polite behavior and then asking them what they should do. For example, we’ll say, “What do you say if one of your friends has a toy you really want to play with?” Not only is this game good practice, sometimes you’ll get ridiculously cute, completely unexpected answers.
7 – Take a Trip to Costco
Costco is the perfect place to practice polite skills because the store offer samples. When we go to Costco on Saturday afternoon, our kids get to practice saying, “May I please have one” and “thank you” ten to twenty times in just half an hour.
8 – Turn off the TV
A lot of TV shows do a terrible job of teaching kids about being polite – the characters are often rude with little or no consequence. Even worse, sometimes their rudeness is portrayed as being funny or clever. These sorts of shows are negative influences on children who are trying to learn how to be polite.
After we figured out that TV was influencing our kids for the worse, we permanently stopped watching TV, and we saw a marked improvement in our kids’ behavior almost immediately.
9 – Have Your Kids Hold Doors for People
Our kids want to be first at everything (a trait they, unfortunately, get from me). So, whenever we get to a door, their natural inclination is to run through as fast as they can and proclaim either, “I’m first” (if they were first) or, “It’s not a race” (if they were second). By making them hold the door for people, we’re teaching them to curb their desire to always be first and to put other people’s needs ahead of their own.
10 – Praise Your Kids’ Effort to Be Polite
We say things like, “I love it when I hear you say thank you” or, “Thanks so much for being polite. I love that you’re such a polite boy.” To adults, these compliments might sound a little corny. But our kids love them. Junior and Addy beam with pride when we tell them how amazing they are for being polite. While we hope that eventually they’ll exercise good manners because it’s the right thing to do, right now we’re certainly willing to settle for them doing it simply to make us proud.
What do you do to help your kids learn good manners?