Teaching Manners to Kids


An interview with Sheryl Eberly

“I am always saying “Glad to’ve met you” to somebody I’m not at all glad I met. If you want to stay alive, you have to say that stuff, though.”
― J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Were the last couple of weeks filled with enduring memories of holiday love and tenderness? Or, perhaps you can only reflect on too many instances of your children acting like pills? The season can be rougher than we’d hope with our kids spending time at a variety of homes with different expectations and codes of behavior. What parent can hide their discomfort when their child refuses to say hello, or eschews the offer of food with an, “I hate that stuff!”.  “Please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” go a long way in our world, no matter what our age. Teaching our children the basics of courtesy, can only help build a foundation of respect. Sheryl Eberly, an expert on manners, shares her answers about how to instill politeness in our flock. — Laurel Moglen, Managing Web Editor, TMC

What manners are 3-6 year old capable of learning?

Parents begin teaching manners by example as soon as a child is born. While our children might do what we say, they are more likely to do what we do. First-time parents may be surprised to see their own lapses in courtesy show up in their children. Whether we like it or not, learning usually takes place in the home, through imitation.

My children’s pediatrician said it’s a good idea to teach your child one new chore each year. If a child learns to make a bed at age three, at age four he can begin emptying the wastebaskets, and by five start to set or clear the table. Try a similar approach with manners. Teach your child a few manners – and when he’s mastered those, start on a few more. Lay a foundation and build on it.

For three-six year olds, you might focus on these manners:

  • Establish eye contact when speaking to others.
  • Say hello.
  • Say “excuse me” when adults are talking.
  • Wash hands before and after a meal.
  • Stay seated during the meal.
  • Use utensils at the table.
  • Say “please” and “thank you”.

Should manners vary from one environment (i.e., a restaurant) to another (i.e., home)?

Having different codes of manners can be confusing to your child and not very practical in the long run. Why not practice at home and enjoy being able to relax when you’re out, knowing your child has a good idea of how to behave? I happen to like pre-Civil War Eliza Farrar’s philosophy: “Would it not be more refined and honest to live a little better every day and make less a parade before company?”

So I recommend getting the basics down at home by showing consideration to family members:

  • Talk to your parents. Say “good morning” and “good night.”
  • Respect the privacy of others.
  • Knock gently on a closed door before entering.
  • Use good table manners.
  • Borrow items only after getting permission. Return them in good condition.
  • Spend time with siblings.
  • Ask family members how things are going.
  • Use an “indoor voice” when in the house.
  • Pick up and put away whatever is no longer being played with.
  • Don’t let goodbyes be accompanied by unkind words.

Any tips on how to help make learning  manners fun?

I’ve always liked role playing, and kids do too. Teach them how to make introductions by giving them interesting identities and asking them to introduce themselves and others to you. Give them high praise for any social graces they display (shaking hands, introducing a topic of conversation after the introduction, etc.).

Prompt them about good manners at home, and then let them practice at family gatherings or when dining out. Catch your children doing things correctly, and acknowledge and praise them. Don’t nag them when they’re in public (unless they’re doing something that has to be stopped immediately); rather expect them to use the manners they’ve practiced at home. This is more fun for a child than being the target of criticism in public.

How important is it for children to have eye contact with adults?

Not every child feels comfortable with this, yet it is a nice skill to learn. If your child tends toward shyness, she may pull back and not want to establish eye contact with adults. I admire one of my friends who got in the habit of asking her child to tell her what color eyes she noticed. The child ended up having eye contact without realizing it!

That said, eye contact is a sign of social confidence, and the child who develops this ability will be better equipped to establish good relationships. Explain to your child the reason behind it: When you look someone in the eye, you communicate respect to them and show them you are interested in them. It’s a way to let them know you think they are important and you’re paying attention to them.

When children visit different families and homes, and experience different expectations – what is the best way to instruct our children to behave?

It’s good to have a discussion at home about how to behave when your child is a guest. A good practice is to put himself in the shoes of the host and think like a host. Consider how he would like someone to behave when they visit your home.

Here are a few tips for being a good guest:

  • Speak up. There are plenty of simple ways your child can communicate clearly and politely: Hello, Mrs. Green… I’ll have chocolate ice cream, please… That was fun—thank you! Even if she’s shy, encourage your child to acknowledge adults, express her preferences when asked, and let her friend know she’s enjoying herself.
  • Travel light. If the visit is an overnight or simply an afternoon involving different activities, your child should only pack what she’ll need—and leave the games and gadgets at home. This will show her host she trusts they’ll have fun, no extra stuff needed. Do consider sending along some food—which is almost always welcome, especially if your child has any dietary restrictions.
  • Watch and learn. When your child is at a friend’s house, he should take cues from his friend’s family’s actions and follow suit. Do they take off their shoes before coming inside? Wash their hands before a meal? Stow their cell phones when guests are over? Recycle?
  • Chew quietly. Practice good table manners — use utensils properly, chew with the mouth closed, take only one’s fair share of food, put a napkin in the lap, say thank you for the meal – and the most important basics will be covered!
  • All’s well that ends well. Saying goodbye and leaving promptly when the visit is over is a good way to get invited back—and that goes for parents too. Even if you want to chat with another parent, be a good role model by respecting the other family’s time and drawing the visit to a close, then schedule some time to chat at length at a later date.

Sheryl Eberly, author of 365 Manners Kids Should Know, runs Distinctions, a company that presents manners instruction seminars to children, young adults, and businesspeople. She lives with her family in northern Virginia.

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Discipline, Holidays