In early childhood, it’s common to be unaware of social norms that we adults like to call, “manners” or “being polite.” However, these types of behaviours to show respect need to be taught, and learned. They are different than empathy, which also can require some training and awareness exercises. Displays of outward respect and thankfulness are often culturally based.
So, when your kid forgets to say “thank you” after receiving a gift, never says hello or goodbye to grandma, interrupts your calls, or blurts out something rude to a store employee, should you be worried? What are age-appropriate manners for preschoolers in early childhood? Do you need to sit them down to explain every instance of impoliteness? Or can you chalk it up to, ‘kids being kids’?
That may be a difficult question to answer concretely. But in this article, we’ll try to explain what types of manners and polite gestures a child should be expected to perform, remember and understand the meaning of.
At ages 1 to 2 years old, toddlers can understand word formalities when teaching manners
The toddler stage is when your babies start picking up words. They copy what they hear often, and they realize when you are trying to get them to say a certain word. It can be an enlightening time to learn what you sound like when you talk!
This is when you can start teaching manners to toddlers by introducing words like “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” “I’m sorry” and “excuse me.”
Now, they may end up sounding more like, “fank u,” “welcome,” “i’m sawee” and “scuse me.” They may also be said at the wrong moments. It’s all part of the adorable cuteness of this age span. Soak it in, and keep encouraging the use of these words in the right contexts. If they say “welcome” instead of “thank you,” just say “thank you!” or “good job!” Or, somehow show them you ‘accept’ their attempt, and it was a great try.
At first, they may not fully understand the meaning behind these words, or why they are important. But they can learn that they are important to you, and in social situations. So they’ll use them to ‘fit in,’ and as part of their communication habits.
Knowing the words and using them out of habit is a great first start when teaching children to be polite. It builds a foundation to forming meaning, later.
At ages 3 to 5, preschoolers can learn to behave politely in social situations
Three years old to five years old can seem like a large age range to identify ‘normal’ child manners that can be learned. Different preschoolers will mature differently, and in their own time. However, in general, the ages from 3 to 5 are when more complex sentences can be taught as manners, alongside expected behaviours in relationships.
Having conversational exchanges
For example, instead of just waving ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye,’ preschoolers can now be taught manners by saying, “hi, I’m Johnny, what’s your name?” They can say, “how are you?” on phone calls. They can also listen more intently when you have something to say to them. This is, for instance, when circle time and classroom manners are taught.
Sharing and waiting
Around age 3 or 4 is when children learn to share, and to control impulses. Instead of grabbing toys away from each other, or having a temper tantrum when a toy is taken from them, they can learn to wait, stay calm, and delay their gratification. This is when you can teach them to politely ask another child, “can I play with this now?” The next step, of course, is that you need to teach them they might get “no” for an answer. Then what? Ha! Oh the perplexity!
Then, there is teaching table manners. This can be challenging, because as we know, kids do not like sitting still. But, by this age, it is a teachable habit to sit on a chair and eat a meal. Staying in one spot may not last the entire meal.But if you can get them sitting for 10 or 15 minutes, you’re off to a great start!
Table manners, however, go into more than just sitting still. It’s about waiting for others to be ready to eat, before eating yourself. Not burping or coughing on the food. Not whining and complaining about food being, “yucky” (they can use nicer words). Using a napkin and utensils. Ignoring the iPad, and making eye contact with family members. And, saying “please” when they want water or food.
Respect is one that can be abstract for children to understand. For example, we all have heard the instruction to “respect your elders.”
In truth: we should respect all humans. So, how do you explain that parents, teachers, babysitters, grandparents, aunties and uncles deserve more than the everyday manners? This may come later for children, as they enter school age. It can also come along with your parenting style.
However, you can begin by teaching children that, “we always listen to mommy and daddy,” or “be a good boy at school and do what Mrs. Teacher asks.”
At some level, they can intuitively pick up that adults are more ‘in control’ of their little ‘universe,’ and kids are under the care of these adults.
Where to start with age-appropriate manners for preschoolers, and when to build upon them
Some of the above manners may seem like a long shot with your children. And, some are more commonly adopted by age 5 or 6. But, around age 3 is when you can start teaching these things. Work your way up to more and more ‘house rules,’ until they become second nature to your child. Don’t wait until they are 6 to start implementing brand-new, military-style rules at the dinner table. That will be hard to take on their part, and much harder to enforce on your end.
As children enter the school age stages of life, they can begin picking up manners like offering a guest some water, answering the phone politely, and considering how they can help, or go out of their way to be nice.
To conclude: kids are not born polite – they must be taught age-appropriate manners in early childhood
Politeness, niceties, etiquette, decorum, manners – all these things are gateways to empathy, sympathy and forming successful relationships as adults. But they’re not always ‘second nature’ to us. We all need to learn to both feel and show our manners. By starting to teach age-appropriate manners for preschoolers in early childhood, we can get them off to a good start. This ‘head start’ can help them perform adequately in school, at a job, and even in familial situations.
See related on our blog:
- What is social competence in the early years?
- 3 Key tips to understand and solve temper tantrums in toddlers and young children
- 3 ways early childhood educators can help kids get along and feel included
- The importance of eye contact in young children, and how to teach it as a social skill
- Why are ‘home values’ important for child development and in early childhood education?
- How to teach impulse control in early childhood
- How to handle a preschool bully as a parent or early childhood educator