Teaching Kids Manners: A Parenting Educator on How to Raise Polite Humans

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As parents, we all aspire to raise respectful humans who never forget to mind their manners, but instilling such propriety in your little rascal is easier said than done. So what’s the secret to teaching kids manners so that the lessons really stick? We spoke to parenting educator, author and former elementary school teacher Laura Linn Knight to get the lowdown on how to prepare children for civil society.

How to Explain Manners to a Child

There’s no need to get on a soap box, friends—pontificating on the importance of proper etiquette won’t do you or your kid any favors. Instead, the best way to instill an understanding of good manners in a child is by modeling good behavior (but you knew that one already, right?). The second best way is by reading. Of course, there are specific books about manners if you want to take a heavy-handed approach (like this one or this one), but Knight says that picture books in general, whether the main character has a good or bad manner, “lend themselves to many opportunities” for opening up a dialogue and teaching polite behavior.

The Most Important Thing to Keep in Mind When Teaching Children Proper Manners

You’re probably thinking you’ve got good manners down pat; after all, you never forget to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. But it’s important to consider what having good manners actually means, particularly in the context of parenting, so that you can be sure you truly are leading by example. To this end, Knight says parents should keep in mind that mutual respect is key, and that “manners are a way to communicate this respect, teach kindness and friendliness, and offer children a way to learn healthy connections with others.”

The reality is that this intention is too often lost in the teaching process and, rather than modeling good manners, many parents find themselves reacting with threats, bribes and yelling to their child’s behavior. “This reactive parenting approach is harmful in many ways and negates the manners that a parent is trying to instill in their child,” cautions Knight. In other words, you can’t just bully your kid into being polite. However, once you do the hard work of checking your own behavior and taking accountability when you’ve made a mistake, you’ll be in a much better position to teach your kid the importance of being respectful.

How to Teach Manners to Preschoolers

According to Knight, pretend play is one of the best ways to teach manners to a preschooler, because it allows parents to spend special time with their child while role playing relevant scenarios. (Think: Using your kid’s dolls to prep for a playdate by acting out polite turn-taking.) The end result is a social-emotional learning experience that little kids are particularly receptive to, with lessons that will translate to daily life. On that note, Knight also recommends that parents give preschoolers plenty of positive reinforcement when they show off their newly acquired manners. However, she adds that this reinforcement need not come in the form of a reward system. In fact, she recommends that parents ditch the external motivating factors (i.e., sticker charts) and stick to heartfelt verbal acknowledgments of good behavior instead, as this helps children develop an “internal sense of doing good in the world.” 

10 Good Manners to Teach Kids

1. Magic words

Any request that doesn’t include a ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ definitely makes parents cringe. Yet, it can be very difficult to train kids to consistently remember the magic words, which is particularly problematic given that your child is probably the most demanding person in your life. Fortunately, the solution, which we touched on above, isn’t a hard sell—not for your kid at least. Yep, pretend play may not be your favorite activity to participate in (i.e., your eyes glaze over and the siren song of your smartphone reaches a fever pitch) but it’s time to look at the land of make believe through a different lens—namely, as an opportunity to achieve your parenting goals.

“This type of play lends itself to all different scenarios where your child can practice their manners,” explains Knight. That said, before you bust out the stuffies and channel your inner Mr. Rogers, the parenting expert says it’s good to remember that play is effectively an interactive learning experience that gives children a chance to experiment with the good, bad and the ugly (so don’t get your panties in a bunch if there’s an ill-mannered guest at the pretend tea party). We’ve all heard of that unicorn child who manages to utter the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ before the age of 2, but most kids will need a little more time (and constant reminding) to get there... but don’t give up! 

2. Table manners

Picture this: You just cooked a meal you’re truly excited to eat and you want to talk with your partner about the family’s weekend plans...but little Sally is out of her chair doing the hokey-pokey and younger brother John is loudly clanking his fork against his drinking glass to make not-so-sweet music. Indeed, family dinners with young kids can make any parent question their child-rearing skills. To address this common dilemma, Knight suggests a weekly fancy dinner night. Bust out the cloth napkins and have everyone put on their best clothes, and you might be surprised by how “the novelty of this dinner [makes children] eager to participate and how their table manners translate to other dinners throughout the week as well,” says Knight.

Just remember to keep your expectations age-appropriate. You may be able to teach your 2-year-old not to bang his fork on the table but asking him to sit still for a 30-minute meal is a tall order. Try starting with just a couple of minutes and work your way up from there.

3. Hygiene

Washing hands, brushing teeth, covering one’s mouth when coughing or sneezing—these basic hygiene practices are essential, and best taught through repetition and routine. According to the parenting pro, these good habits will become ingrained over time as long as you stay consistent (and model them yourself, of course). You can start by teaching toddlers the importance of basic hygiene by giving them a helping hand, and around ages 3 to 5 you can let your kid attempt these tasks independently with you present. Around ages 6 to 9, many children are able to do their daily hygiene routine all on their own and without being asked.

4. Greeting visitors

So your child goes mute as soon as a guest gives them a warm greeting. Well, this kind of nervousness is incredibly common...but that doesn’t make it any less socially awkward. The good news is that even shy kids can learn to respectfully acknowledge a visitor’s presence, so long as they have a little practice. Again, role playing is the name of the game. For kids ages 3 and up, act the scenario out by having an immediate family member ring the doorbell and pretend to drop in so that your kid has a chance to run through the script. (Hi! How are you? Nice to see you, too…) Once your child has mastered this, they’ll be ready to flex their newly acquired social skills with extended family members and, eventually, random acquaintances, too.

5. Talking in turn

There’s some overlap with table manners here, but most parents will tell you that the problem of an interrupting kid is not exclusive to mealtime. Indeed, turn-taking is a valuable lesson that applies to more than just tots and toys. You don’t need to resort to classroom formalities just to get a word in edgewise with your child or finish a conversation with your spouse, but Knight does say that hand gestures can be a helpful tool when it comes to curbing this frustrating habit. For kids ages 3 and up, work together to come up with a signal that you can use to indicate to your child that it is or isn’t her turn to talk—this mutual agreement and the resulting visual cue will help your child develop the self-control required to wait her turn to talk. Of course, it’s also important to teach kids that “sometimes things need to be said in a timely manner,” and that it’s OK to just say ‘excuse me’ in an emergency.

6. Taking responsibility

We’re all trying to raise our kids to be kind and empathetic humans, but simply forcing a child to apologize doesn’t do much in the long run. In fact, demanding an apology from a kid often gets you little more than a terse and disingenuous expression of contrition. Knight suggests starting a dialogue that relies on critical thinking questions as a means of actually “teaching kids the part that they play in a disagreement, or how they’re contributing to a difficult situation,” an approach you can try with the older toddler/preschooler age group. Think: “You grabbed Jessica’s toy and now she’s upset—would you like to say sorry? Saying sorry is what we do when we feel bad about something, and it can make the other person feel better.” (Pro tip: You can model this by apologizing for your own parenting fails, too.)

7. Not begging for things at the store

Whether it’s begging, nagging or straight-up screaming, a kid pleading for candy when you came for canola oil is no fun. Indeed, for parents whose children haven’t learned how to take ‘no’ for an answer, an ordinary grocery run is the stuff of nightmares. The solution? An allowance. Knight says kids as young as 4 years old can benefit from this common practice while learning some valuable financial skills, to boot. Plus, by having kids spend their own cash at the store, you’re putting them in charge—but in a way that just might make them think twice about that bag of peanut M&Ms.

8. Kindness

Mutual respect and empathy are at the core of what it means to have good manners. Indeed, kindness really is just a way of life, which is why Knight maintains that it’s important to help your child “establish an internal practice of kindness” from an early age. An easy way to go about this is with a bedtime ritual that involves asking little kids (think: preschoolers and up) to identify one way in which they were kind that day, plus an example of kindness from someone else and how they showed appreciation for it. These kind of “critical thinking questions really help kids create a habit around kindness,” says Knight. Also, don’t sweat it if your kid didn’t do anything kind and doesn’t have a good answer—it will only motivate them to have a better reply tomorrow.

9. Picking up after themselves

Clean-up power struggles are real...and they’re a real bummer. When it comes to getting kids to pick up after themselves, the expert tells us that a formal contract is the secret to success, so start by sitting down together and laying out your expectations. After that, Knight suggests enforcing the expectations by tying clean-up to desirable activities to help motivate kids. This is a simple equation that relies not on punishment, threats or bribes, but rather on natural consequences. Let’s say, for example, family movie night begins at 6 p.m. every Friday, but only if the toys are all put away first—so if it’s 6:30 p.m. and your kid still hasn’t cleaned up, there sadly won’t be time for Toy Story 2.

10. Polite speech

Name-calling, swear words—this type of speech is never charming, but kids can pick it up pretty easily. For the toddler and preschooler age group, your best bet is to just avoid swearing. If you hear such undesirable language escape from the mouth of your older kid, the parenting coach says it’s best to avoid shaming and overreacting. Instead, try to stay cool as cucumber and just be curious: “Ask them to reflect on how they would feel if they were called such a name and how they experienced that situation.” Basically, try to glean some context and teach empathy by modeling your best listening skills...even if you didn’t like what you just heard.

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Emma Singer is a freelance contributing editor and writer at PureWow who has over 7 years of professional proofreading, copyediting and writing experience. At PureWow, she covers...