How to Raise Polite Kids
By Gail Belsky
Kids aren’t born knowing how to shake hands, how to say “Thank you” or how to use a tissue instead of their sleeves; they learn these social skills as they grow. Or not.
“Teaching manners is a huge responsibility for parents,” says Cindy Post Senning, co-author of Emily Post’s The Gift of Good Manners: A Parent’s Guide to Raising Respectful, Kind, Considerate Children. “You’re giving your kids a sense of self-respect and confidence.” You’re also giving them an edge when they head out into the adult world, she adds.
The first rule to raising polite kids is the most critical: Always be the person you want your kids to be. “If you want your kids to be respectful, considerate and kind, then you need to be respectful, considerate and kind,” says Senning. And not just when you think they’re watching, she adds, because your kids are always watching and learning from your behavior.
When it comes to learning manners, practice makes perfect. But you have to know what your kids are developmentally capable of before you set any expectations. With that in mind, here are Senning’s tips for teaching kids the basic social skills they need to succeed.
“Please,” “Thank You” and “You’re Welcome”
“Please” is an easy one because it results in something good happening. Whatever that thing is, you can withhold it until your kids say the magic words. “Thank you” is trickier because something has already happened. To make the thank-you genuine, talk to your kids about how it feels when people do and don’t say “Thanks.” Give an (age-appropriate) example: “If you had spent three hours helping Hannah with her project, how would you feel if she just said ‘OK, see you tomorrow’ without ever saying thanks?” “You’re welcome” is a routine response, so keep reminding your kids to say it until it becomes automatic.
The biggest reasons for having good table manners are very clear to kids: It keeps you from embarrassing yourself and from grossing out other people. And if you don’t, the consequences are direct. If you butter your whole roll instead of doing it in pieces, you’ll smear your face when you bite into it. If you don’t know which glass is yours, you might drink someone else’s drink. And down the line, people will judge you if you don’t learn how to handle utensils properly. Teach young children to set the table with the fork on the left side of the plate and the knife and spoon on the right. (If at a restaurant the utensils are rolled up in a napkin, have kids put the napkin on their lap and set their place.) At home, have them practice holding utensils properly, even though it’s awkward at first.
Young kids are notoriously shy around strangers, but by age 3, they should be able to say “Hi,” even if they’re hiding behind your legs. By 6 years, they should be able to extend their hand and look someone in the eye (or in the nose, if that’s less threatening), according to Senning. The most important part of greeting someone is smiling, so tell your kids that even if they’re too shy to shake hands, they should always say “Hello” with their best smile.
The way to teach kids polite conversation is to make polite conversations with them. That means no negative talk at the dinner table -- no griping about work or harping about homework. Polite, social conversation means showing an interest in other people and focusing the discussion on things that make them comfortable. So ask your kids about themselves: what happened at school, what they thought of the movie you all watched, how play rehearsal went. Save the serious, less pleasant discussion for after the meal.
Raising polite kids takes years of explaining, reminding, discussing and practicing. You might not always see it firsthand, but kids who grow up in an environment that values politeness and respect take those lessons with them.