Though most parents strive to teach children niceties such as "please" and "thank you," good manners don't begin and end with those magic words. What about the tot who squirms at the dinner table and jumps up after two minutes? Or the grade-schooler who runs wild at friends' homes? How about the high-schooler who shrinks during introductions?
If you're raising a manners-challenged child, you're not alone. Childhood manners mishaps are as common as children themselves, says Chris J. Rock, etiquette coach and founder of Etiquette and Protocol Consulting in Winston-Salem. The good news: Childhood and the teenage years are the times to learn and practice appropriate behavior, and mistakes are expected. Even better, swift etiquette intervention can lay the groundwork for a lifetime of civility.
Read on for our age-by-age guide on helping kids mind their manners.
The golden rule — treat others as you'd like to be treated — is the basis of all etiquette, says Rock. So how soon should parents start teaching children manners? "You can't start them too young," she says. "There is no certain age when the magic begins."
That means establishing family behavior norms early on. If you don't want your children to run indoors, traipse through airplane rows or jump on furniture, correct these behaviors in toddlerhood with a firm, gentle reminder: "That is not how we act in this family. It doesn't matter what other children do." Toddlers have notoriously short memories, so catchy songs can help etiquette lessons stick, says Rock. "We sing 'Yes is better than Yeah' with our grandchildren," she says.
Table manners training can also start early. Rock recommends introducing flatware as soon as children can hold it (often in late infancy or early toddlerhood), discouraging eating with the hands, and gently stretching the time tots can sit still during meals. Start with just four or five minutes and build to 15 or 20. Children as young as 2 can be taught to ask their host — in most cases, mom or dad — to be excused from the table when finished.
The grade-school years bring more friend visits and sleepovers — potential manners minefields, since kids will be away from parents' watchful eyes. Teaching children to be a respectful guest in friends' homes can ramp up confidence at a time when children are developing a social identity (and increase the odds of receiving a repeat invitation).
Before the play date, remind children that being a guest means respecting the household rules of their host. If the host family removes their shoes at the door or doesn't allow snacking in bedrooms, a guest should comply. To show respect, ask children to address their friend's parents as "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" unless directed by the parents to do otherwise. And always follow up a sleepover or a special play date with a personal thank-you note from the child.
Want your tween or teen to make a good impression? Teach them to make a proper introduction — a habit that pays lifelong dividends. To start, insist that children learn to introduce themselves with confidence and greet new acquaintances with eye contact and a firm handshake.
"It's important for parents to know introduction protocol themselves so they can model correctly," says Rock. For example, when introducing two parties, the senior or more important person's name is said first. Likewise, when introducing two friends, use equal terms for both; never use first and last name for one and just first name for the other. Polish introduction prowess by encouraging tweens and teens to introduce you and others at social gatherings and in group settings. Soon, they'll be ready to take on the world — civilly, of course.
Malia Jacobson is a freelance writer and mother of two.
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