Deciding what manners are appropriate for children to maintain at a certain age, and then teaching those manners, can be two different battles. Children definitely need to be trained to be polite and respectful. It won’t come naturally to them, since they are born self-centred, of course. They also get everything handed to them without a ‘price’ from the moment they’re born. Free milk, free attention, free toys… you get the idea.
So, how do you transition a self-centred baby into a respectful, polite toddler or preschooler? By teaching manners (whatever they may be). How you go about this can make a difference in the results you get. Below, we’ll give just 3 key strategies to teach manners to toddlers and preschool-aged children.
Model the etiquette you want to see in your child, and point it out in others
There is a book called, “Good Manners Are Contagious.” The title says a lot. Children are absorbers of information, and they make almost-perfect copycats. They imitate those they see around them. They learn social norms and behaviours this way.
So, if you want your child to be polite and respectful, you need to be that kind of person, first. If you want them to sit straight at the table during meals, and to cover their mouth with their sleeve when they sneeze, you need to do it too.
Now, it’s not just modelling that will get this manners lesson through to children. There is more to it. But, this is where it starts.
The other important thing is to point out to children when others are being polite. For example, when a child on the playground lets yours have a turn at the see-saw, you can make a big deal out of it. This will not only make that other child feel good about their kind gesture. It will also enlighten your child to see that this is the ‘right’ way to do things.
Aim to develop a genuine sense of empathy, sympathy and gratitude when teaching children manners
However, it’s not all about rules. We want children to understand that if they want others to be nice to them, they also need to be nice. We want to encourage sympathy and empathy. So when we point out the manners of others, we can accompany that with talk like, “Wow! That was so nice of your little sister to let you play with her doll, did you say ‘thank you’? How about you let her play with your blocks now?” And so on.
There is no ‘rule’ that says we have to share in adult life. We learn to do it because of empathy and sympathy, which are emotions to be cultivated at a young age. And quite frankly, we also do it because we hope others will do the same for us in this, optimistic worldview of, ‘circular friendship.’
It’s reasonable to teach kids to develop a sense of mutuality early in life. We want them to start initiating their own manners and signs of respect – the kind that come from a genuine understanding of why they’re important.
It can feel weird to ask your child to be thankful for something you would have given them in a heartbeat, with no ‘thanks’ required. And there is a degree of that which is normal. They don’t need to feel guilty about all that you give them (in fact, they should never feel like they ‘owe’ you for their survival, or your love and affection).
But balance is key: they can learn to say “thank you mom and dad” for new toys. Or, when they ask for your help to reach something high, and you do it for them. Remind them to say thank you in those types of moments, but not in a guilt-tripping way; just as a routine reminder that niceties are ‘normal.’ Then, you can say, “you’re welcome!” or “no problem!” enthusiastically, so they know you’re not burdened by their request. That is also a form of manners, which they can pick up from you.
Don’t let the bad manners ‘slide’ – ensure they are enforced, in an age-appropriate way
Let’s face it: some days, our kids are tired and cranky, and we are tired and cranky. We feel like we just can’t keep fighting these battles. So when the kid throws a temper tantrum and says something rude, we can sometimes let it go, just because we don’t want to deal with it. It takes too much mental energy, and we need a break.
The problem with that is, these are exactly the teachable moments in which we need to enforce the rules of being polite.
Now, there is no need for you to have a full-blown ‘fight’ with your toddler or preschooler about an outburst, or an act of defiance, or plain rudeness. In our article defining balanced parenting style for this age group, we mention the difference between discipline and punishment. Anger and aggression are not necessary to get a message across. In fact, those types of reactions may perpetuate more troublesome behaviour (kids want to be respected and feel in control, just like adults).
One reasonable way to teach manners to toddlers and preschoolers in moments like these, is to show them, calmly, that there are natural consequences to their actions. You don’t have to always go out of your way to ‘punish’ a child, you can simply ensure they experience the unpleasantness that happens when they make certain choices (while maintaining safety, of course!). One great article to explain this in more detail, and how to impose it, is on the University of Minnesota Extension website, here.
So, what is a natural consequence of being rude? Well, you make mommy and daddy unhappy. No one will want to play with you. You can play that ‘game’ for a few hours, if you need to – whatever you feel is age-appropriate, and personally appropriate for your child, and your household. They don’t need to be ‘shunned’ for days though; this is a lesson in using manners, not a life-altering mistake they’ve made.
If they deliberately broke house rules, the consequence for those violations would, in theory, have been established beforehand. If they called someone a bad name, grabbed a toy from their sibling without asking, or didn’t use their table manners on purpose, that could mean they don’t get their screen time that evening. Technically, taking away a privilege is a punishment. But since the rules were established earlier, they should have known the choice they were making, and the sacrifice that would ensue.
The use of natural consequences can avoid heightened emotions, including that ‘last drop of energy’ we mentioned above. And, as the article linked-to above states, “logical consequences are reasonable and related to the problem, and…let both the child and the parent keep their self-respect.”
Yes, you’ll probably get some resistance and more whining from the kid who was cranky to begin with. Or those irresistible puppy eyes. But the key here is consistency. Don’t let it slide. And one way to do that is by not using energy-draining resources on your part, that you can’t maintain anyway.
To conclude: teaching manners is about developing a moral center, and a core character
As we’ve seen above, teaching manners goes deeper than outward formalities. While it can start by mimicking adult behaviour, it needs to go further than that. Teaching empathy and gratitude can help a child realize their place in this world; they need to be nice to get by in life. And others need to be nice to them too.
They are not ‘owed’ anything, which may be a new concept to them, since they just spent years getting everything they wanted and needed, without anything in return.
On the flip side: they technically don’t ‘owe’ anyone anything, but if they are not sharing, caring and polite, they may suffer natural consequences as a result. Ensuring these natural consequences stay in place, as part of your parenting habits, can help to reinforce the message of why they are being taught their manners.