Raising polite children


(This article was first published in Your Baby Nov/Dec 2015) 

We’ve all met that child who makes us grateful for our own children. The child who bashes yours and grabs her toy, who runs away defiantly when you want to correct him, who mumbles out a hardly audible, shifty-eyed response when you ask a simple question. It’s infuriating. And we’re not the first to have noticed.

Children’s behaviour has been infuriating for at least the length of human civilisation. In 1907, KJ Freeman summarised complaints against children in ancient Greece: “… luxury, bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect to elders, and a love for chatter in place of exercise.

Children began to be the tyrants, not the slaves, of their households. They no longer rose from their seats when an elder entered the room; they contradicted their parents, chattered before company, gobbled up the dainties at table...” Doesn’t that sound just like your parents – or just like you?

Read: Mind your manners, please…

Across our South African communities, Afrikaans moms are complaining their grandkids call them “jy” instead of “Ouma”; isiXhosa-speaking gogos bemoan the fact that three-year-olds no longer mutely listen to orders and comply. Rules of behaviour – how you should and shouldn’t interact socially – might be changing. Yet they are no less complex and nuanced now than the expectations of yesteryear.

We construct complex codes for how to live in our Communities – especially using our newest form of communication, social media. We’ve all cringed when one of our elders completely failed to “get” it and posted something awkward online. Your  children will probably soon cringe at you! So first off, let’s accept that we all fail occasionally to understand some of the nuances of some of the ever-changing rules.


Creative parenting expert Nikki Bush (www.nikkibush.com) says the mantra “respect, manners, ladies and gentlemen” is a constant – people will always like to be treated respectfully and courteously. If we judge our children to be less “polite” (than, say, 100 years ago), we need to look at how much our rules and expectations of behaviour have changed over a generation or two.

And then we must decide if we’ve swung the pendulum too far. For example, today’s parents allow children to express their feelings, and massively value good self-esteem. Perhaps this is in reaction to having been raised, themselves,

with the idea that children’s feelings were not particularly important, that “children should be seen and not heard” (as was common in the Silent, 1920s-born generation), or being raised with less parental emotional connection than we as parents expect of ourselves these days (such as Generation X – the “latchkey” generation).

Read: Ultimate life lessons for your kids

The problem with that is that our children might be so used to being valued and respected that they now may think of their needs and desires as more important than others’. “We are putting children on a pedestal without teaching the basics of good behaviour that will support that pedestal,” says Nikki.

A survey of 10 000 children at Harvard University last year, part of the “Making Caring Common” project, found that 80 percent of the kids said that their parents taught them that being happy and becoming high achievers were more important than caring for others.

Before Generation Xers were parents, parents were more concerned with how their children behaved towards others than with how others behaved towards their children. And that has certainly changed.

“It may be that today’s parents are so fixated on their children’s emotional wellbeing that they’re teaching them that the wellbeing of others is comparatively unimportant,” says New York paediatrician Dr Philippa Gordon in a piece by Susan Gregory Thomas on the website NBCnews.com.

“I see parents ferociously advocating for their children, responding with hostility to anyone they perceive as getting in the child’s way – from a person whose dog snuffles at a baby in a carriage, to a teacher whom they perceive is slighting their child, to a poor, hapless doctor who cannot cure the common cold.

There is a feeling that anything interfering with their kid’s homeostasis, as they see it, is an inappropriate behaviour to be fended off sharply.”


Children test boundaries – and annoy the table next door at the restaurant, or embarrass you in church. Only a small percentage will remain rebels forever. All children grate on adults’ nerves, and always have, because they are children, and because they are still learning the rules. Learn the rules they must.

 But they need our help to get there, and parents are more in charge than they may know. “I think it’s important that children are made to feel equal in the family home – that everybody’s feelings are important and worthwhile,” says psychologist Claire Maher. “But children still need to know that their parents are in charge.

Read: Manners maketh… what exactly?

Children thrive on boundaries. It is so important for parents to follow through on consequences, too. So often I see parents threatening to remove the iPad if a behaviour doesn’t stop, but not doing so even though the behaviour  continues.

If parents do not follow through on consequences, children will think that rules can be bent and broken.” As Nikki reminds parents, future employers (and partners) need the competitive, competent, self assured high achievers we are raising to also be agreeable.

“It is worth standing your ground and digging deep to help your children achieve the basics of how to be nice in the world,” she says. Parents feel they must raise children who can hold their own, become financially independent and be competitive in a fast-changing society.

We may not even be able to imagine, let alone understand, the careers we are supposed to be preparing children for. That kind of anxiety can be blinding. Or, as author Judith Warner puts it in the New York Times: “The pressure [on children] to do well is up. The demand to do good is way, way down.” But let’s do both! If we’ve let our children’s behaviour get out of hand, let’s swing that pendulum back.

Are you raising polite children? Are they taught manners when at home? email you comments and stories to chatback@parent24.com we might publish it. 

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