Let’s start with the good news. Like so many other skills, good manners can be taught from an early age. It is, however, not always an easy task.
Children aren't born rude
Most parenting experts agree that helping children to develop appropriate social skills, teaching them to treat others with respect and showing them how to politely interact with other people – in short, good manners – are an important part of growing up and will guide your children through the journey of life.
Writing in Parents Magazine, clinical psychologist and educational expert Dr David Lowry says children aren’t born rude.
They simply don’t realise it’s impolite to grab another child’s toys, pick their nose, interrupt adults, barge into their parent’s bedroom, or make rude remarks about others.
However, that doesn’t mean you should let your child run riot and excuse his bad behaviour by saying he’s still small or just expressing how he feels.
Bad-mannered children may encounter problems in society when they grow up, so common sense dictates that it’s worth the effort to teach them good manners.
When to start teaching manners
Many childcare experts believe it’s never too early to start teaching basic manners. In fact, even 18-month-old toddlers will understand if you explain in simple terms why kindness and courtesy are important.
As soon as your little one can start to form simple words, begin teaching him words like “please” and “thank you”, linked to actions – for instance, when he wants something or someone gives him something.
You can also use role play or practical examples he can relate to.
For example, you could demonstrate the concept of showing respect for others by explaining to your little one how it makes Granny happy when he greets her politely, or that saying “please” and “thank you” shows you care about other people and appreciate their efforts.
According to Patricia Rossi, author of Everyday Etiquette, another important habit to teach your child is how to greet people properly. She suggests using role play to show your child to face people directly, look them in the eye and shake their hand when meeting them.
Even though you can’t expect two-year-old toddlers to have perfect manners, they’re especially receptive at this age.
Use these guidelines to help your child master the basics:
• Keep things simple: Make learning manners easy for your child – overloading him with information on all the social niceties you want him to learn will just confuse him and frustrate you.
• Teach by example: You can’t expect your child to be well-mannered if you have bad manners. Use the power of setting a good example by practising politeness and listening politely when your child speaks, instead of barking instructions or admonishing him when he doesn’t behave.
• Be consistent: Don’t veer away from the set of rules you’ve decided on, and ensure your child displays good manners both at home and in public. If you overlook your child’s bad manners at home, you can’t expect him to behave when you’re in a public place.
• Be patient: It takes time and effort to teach your toddler good manners which will become second nature. Be patient. It will eventually happen if you make practising politeness a habit.
• Encourage and praise good manners instead of criticising when your child doesn’t get it right. Most young children want to please their parents and praise will be more likely to enhance their attempts to be well-mannered. If your child displays bad manners in public, instead of correcting him in front of others, rather take him aside and explain what’s expected of him.
• Don’t emphasise the rules: Your child will learn many things in life, including a series of rules. The process may be easier if you encourage your child to learn good manners because it’s thoughtful and the right thing to do instead of saying he has to be well mannered because it’s “the rule”.
• Use gentle reminders: Most children tend to be busy and self-focused. For this reason, they may sometimes forget what you’ve been trying to teach them. All it needs is a gentle reminder.
• Use various everyday opportunities to instil good manners in your children. This will make them easier to apply in all life situations.
Which manners are most important?
Some parents may regard certain manners as more important than others for a variety of personal and cultural reasons. The key is to keep things simple – at least at first.
Clinical psychologist Dr David Lowry and Elise McVeigh, founder of Mrs. McVeigh's Manners, suggest prioritising the following:
• Saying “please” when asking for something and “thank you” when receiving something. This should involve people in all situations, e.g. friends, family members and people who serve them in shops, restaurants etc.
• Waiting your turn to speak and not interrupting adults who are talking to each other unless it’s an emergency. Younger children often find this difficult because they’re naturally self-centred and want to express themselves as soon as something comes to mind. Try using a visual reminder such as a “talking stick” or stuffed animal to encourage everyone to talk when they’re holding the object. Teach your child to say “excuse me” if he needs to get a person’s attention immediately.
• Asking permission if you’re unsure about doing something.
• If a door is closed, knocking first and waiting to hear if there’s a response before entering.
• Thanking your friend’s parents after spending time at their home.
• Covering your mouth with your hand/sleeve when coughing or sneezing and not picking your nose in public.
• Not calling people bad names and avoiding teasing, ganging up on someone or making fun of anyone.
• When visiting the house of a friend or relative, being respectful of their home, surroundings and possessions. Running around the house, shouting loudly, jumping on furniture and handling items or toys without permission is rude and inconsiderate.
• When at someone else’s house, not asking for food straight away – rather wait until refreshments are offered.
• Being appreciative of gifts you receive from others. Even if you don’t like it, already have a similar item, or were hoping for something else, it’s good manners to say “thank you”.
Good table manners matter
At around age two, you can also start teaching your child table manners during family mealtimes. These would include:
• Learning the proper way to use eating utensils
• Chewing with your mouth closed
• Not spitting out food
• Sitting still
• Wiping your mouth with a napkin
• Not starting to eat until everyone has been served
• Waiting to be excused from the table after mealtimes
Remember that modifying rude toddler behaviour is a slow process and you’ll need to repeat things often. Persevere, continue to reinforce what he already knows, and remind him when he makes mistakes.
Lastly, if teaching manners sometimes seems an impossible task, remind yourself that, as your child develops, his social skills will mature as well.