The Why, When and How of Teaching Young Children Good Manners

by | Sep 29, 2021

Many parents wonder whether it is reasonable to expect pre-schoolers to greet visitors on days when they don’t feel very sociable. If they must insist on teaching children to say “please” and “thank you” or take turns when they don’t understand the meaning of these words or actions. Some parents aren’t sure if they should wait until their children are seven or eight years old and ready to grasp the concept of respect before they teach them respectful behaviour. They believe that when children grow up in an environment where others are being considerate towards them, they will eventually choose to be pleasant and considerate when they are good and ready to do so.

The answer lies in the fact that the development of children’s self-concept cannot be put on the backburner along with their manners.

According to a well-known Canadian clinical psychiatrist, Dr Jordan Peterson, parents who decide to wait before teaching their children how to behave in socially accepted ways unintentionally set their little ones up for being socially ill-equipped by the age of four. This can impact a child’s self-image as the way people react to a child continues to shape their belief of themselves and this can lead to them thinking they are irritating or unlikeable.

On the other hand, approving smiles, appreciative looks, and positive comments can have an almost miraculously positive impact on a child’s developing self-concept.

Now that we’ve established the value of investing time and effort into teaching manners early, let’s look at a few tips.

  1. First and foremost, children learn by example. So, if you want to foster respect in your child, treat them and those in their world with respect. If you want your child to say “please”, use the term when you ask something of them. If you want your child to greet people warmly, then make sure you greet them and those in their world in the same way.
  2. Introduce your child to dinnertime around the table. Even if they’ve eaten already, give them a bowl of yogurt or fruit, so that they don’t feel left out. Talk to them during dinner to demonstrate the social side of family dinners. Let them experiment with a spoon and teach them to ask to be excused rather than getting up and walking away from the table.
  3. Teach your child how to greet politely. You can start by creating little ‘pretend’ visits where they practice saying “hello” and “goodbye” to stuffed toys. Also, prompt your child when you’re going to visit a friend, for example, “We’re going to visit aunty Wendy. When we get there, we’re going to say “hello aunt Wendy”.

If “stage fright” sets in, we can encourage them to greet aunty Wendy with a high-five or a Covid-friendly elbow greeting while we say “Hello, aunty Wendy” on their behalf. The basic premise is that they may choose how they’d like to greet someone, but not whether they are going to greet the person.

  1. Three- and four-year-olds can learn to not interrupt. Children can be taught to put their hand on your arm whenever they want your attention while you’re in mid-sentence. Then simply put your free hand on the waiting hand to reassure them that you know they’re waiting their turn to talk to you.

Unless they are in real distress, it’s reasonable to expect a pre-schooler to practice waiting for a minute or two.

  1. Saying ‘sorry’ and accepting a ‘sorry’ is also important. Parents should teach their children when and why they should apologise. Parents should also show their children to learn to graciously accept an apology when they happen to be on the receiving end of the “offence”.

Children don’t learn to apologise with real understanding before the age of four years. It is therefore important to explain the motivation and the heart behind the word. You can say, “Jane, see how sad John is that you took his toy? To make him feel better you can give him, his toy back and say you’re sorry.”

  1. By the age of four, most children can remember to use the words “please” and “thank you” appropriately. They can also remember to say “excuse me” and greet people without being prompted.
  2. Respond by immediately addressing the issue when your child uses a sassy tone of voice. In your normal tone of voice you can say, “I like it better when you speak kindly to me.”
  3. It is important to remember that rules you put in place need to apply both at home and while you’re out. However, don’t feel embarrassed when they have done something that requires a talk but do so in a private place.

Also remember that if you threaten consequences, you need to be willing to follow through.


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