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10 Ways to Teach Your Child Good Manners

Teach your child the essentials of good manners, politeness, and respect. These basic lessons from The Blessing of a Skinned Knee by New York Times bestselling author and clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., will take them far.

“I hate this dinner!”

“Grandma stinks. I’m not going to her house, no way.”

“The play date’s not over. Go away!”

“But why? Tell me whhhyyyy?”

Tone and language are inextricably linked. A child doesn’t necessarily need language to telegraph a negative attitude — clicking the tongue, sneering, and looking exasperated will work just fine — but the words a child speaks do affect the tone he or she uses. Just as it’s awfully difficult to say “Duh” nicely, it’s hard, though, of course, not impossible, to say, “Mom, thank you for dinner,” in a nasty tone each and every evening.

In psychology, the theory of cognitive behaviorism holds that feelings follow behavior. In other words, rather than wait for your children to feel like being agreeable, you can teach them habits of politeness. If you and they use polite phrases every day, feelings of gratitude and respect can grow out of your behavior. In addition to instilling good manners, the phrases and actions below will focus your children’s attention on their blessings, their responsibility, and the efforts of others. Requiring them to say these words is a fine starting point for teaching respect.

  • Greetings and questions should include a parental title: “Dad, may I be excused from the table?” “Thanks for driving us to the mall, Mom.”
  • When a child is offered something, he or she should say, “Yes, please,” or “No, thank you.” Discourage children from silently nodding or shaking their head.
  • Upon entering and leaving the house, rather than darting past you to the GameBoy, basketball hoop, refrigerator, or answering machine, children should offer a salutation: “Hi, Mom, I’m home.” “See you later, Dad.”
  • When taking food and eating it in the presence of a parent, friend, or sibling, your child should make an automatic habit of offering either to share or to get some for the other person. “I’m getting myself a glass of orange juice. Would you like one too?” “Would you like some of these chips?”
  • Children should ask parents if they are finished eating and automatically clear their own, and their parents’, place from the table at the conclusion of a meal. If this seems extreme, think of it as a gesture in the direction of a fair equalization of labor. After all, they can’t drive you to the mall.
  • Children should knock on the door of your room and say, “Hi, it’s me [Jamie]. May I please come in?” whenever the door is closed, even if it is unlocked.

A caveat: As critically important as it is to teach your children honor, it is also important to pick your targets carefully and avoid becoming a drill sergeant. If you are constantly criticizing, you’ll lose their goodwill and end up defeating the honor project. Here are a few sample acts of dishonor you would be wise to let pass:

  • Silly bathroom talk or sad, angry talk in preschoolers: “You’re a poo-poo, Mommy.” Or, as Emma once said to me, “I wish I could hit you with a hundred stones.”
  • Smiling in response to your reprimand. Often this reflects embarrassment, not impudence.
  • Requests from children older than ten for you (parent) not to sing, be too friendly in public, or wear your plaid backpack in front of her friends.
  • Eyeball-rolling at any age. It may seem tedious or priggish to insist on lots of potentially phony politeness, but this is how we build habits for a lifetime.

Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Copyright © 2001 by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D.) is a clinical psychologist, parent educator, and keynote speaker for educational and religious organizations and schools. She lives in Los Angeles and is at work on her next book, The Blessing of a B Minus.




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