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"Children these days just don't have any manners!"
Adults have been saying this for generations, perhaps forever. If it were true then, by now, we'd all be living like animals.
The world is arguably more inclusive and thoughtful of other social groups than ever. With so many cultures, opinions, and ideas rubbing shoulders with others on social media, manners for kids matter as never before. We need to work on our children's manners to stop arguments, foster respect, and help them understand the views of other people.
But how should parents go about teaching manners to children? As with many things in life, you can't always make kids adopt kindness and politeness through training. You need to practice what you preach and be someone who shows kindness and respect yourself, at home, and in the wider world.
As with any behavior, positive feedback is the most powerful feedback. When your child starts saying please and thank you independently, be sure to acknowledge it. "Oh, you said 'please'. That's really good! Thank you!". But manners matter beyond these simple words. The idea that manner matters means that we need to lead by example, and show kindness and respect to others. Hold open doors for people behind you; give way to the other person when the sidewalk is too narrow for two; let the other person finish speaking before opening your mouth; and always use good manners at the table. Manners matter in the classroom, and manners matter in the library. Manners follow us everywhere.
Here we offer some tips on teaching respect and better manners to children. If these tips are helpful, parents might also find these ["I hate homework"] and [January birthday] guides useful!
When we look back through history, it's easy to see a gradual erosion of manners. The stuffy social formality of Victorian times gradually gave way to a more permissive society. Individuality and diversity are now championed as never before. Non-conformity is now considered something to celebrate and respect rather than deride, but that doesn't mean we should jettison all shared behavior. Indeed, modern society needs good manners more than ever. With so many diverse voices, opinions and ways of living all clamoring for attention across social media, a universally understood code of respect is essential. That's where manners come in. We must all be courteous, kind, and listen well, and the basic please and thank-yous are still a very important part of that.
Small children have a natural tendency to talk out loud whenever they feel like it, without waiting for other people to finish. Empathy takes years to fully develop. Small children don't realize that you can only handle one conversation at a time, nor that someone else's words might be more pressing right now than their own. You just have to roll with that sometimes. Try to smile and use a hand gesture to acknowledge their need for attention, and show that you'll turn to them in a moment. Good manners matter, but so does keeping everyone happy, no matter how little.
Conversational good manners take many years to fully master. Humans are capable of conveying such a vast range of thoughts, ideas, and emotions that we must be prepared for anything, and that's only possible with better life experience. As such, it's impossible to provide the full 'rules' of conversation, but we can again lead by example. The most important skill we can impart is to show the importance of good listening. When talking to your child, make full eye contact and listen carefully to what they are saying. On the flip side, if a child seems vacant or distracted while you're talking to them, don't nag or tell them to "listen to me!". Instead, pause what you're saying mid-sentence. That usually triggers their attention.
Once again, the most important matter is to lead by example. As a parent, when someone hands you something, be sure to say "thank you" in a positive tone of voice. Do this time after time, and your child will imitate your ways. Please is a little harder, as it's not a standalone word, but needs context around it. Even so, you can over-emphasise the word every time you ask them to do something. Don't worry if it takes a few years before it comes naturally every time.
It's easy to get into a fret about polite behavior at the dinner table, but really you only five basic manners with children. Everything else should follow as they learn by example. Here are the five key areas where meal time manners matter:
1. Always wash your hands immediately before a meal (for pretty obvious hygiene reasons).
2. Don't talk with food in your mouth (we can't tell what you're saying, and you might spray us with food).
3. Stay on your chair (you might spread food around or bring back germs and, let's face it, it's a bit annoying when you dance around during dinner).
4. No toys at the table (you might rub food into the toy, which then needs cleaning).
5. Use cutlery or chopsticks, unless eating food like a sandwich (stops food stains being spread around the house by dirty fingers, and is considered etiquette in most situations).
Some parents might be inclined to go easy on rule five. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with using well-washed hands for certain types of food. A corn-on-the-cob or burrito would be trickier to eat and, well, much less fun. Just don't try it with soup or a bowl of cereal!
Of course, good manners at the table could extend to a much longer list, but if you can focus on these five basic principles then your children should learn to respect other rules by example. The best part of fixing on just five rules is it makes their teaching all that easier, as kids only have to remember a few simple rules. They will learn them quickly, but that doesn't mean they'll stick to them. Parents should try not to nag, as that just raises the hackles. Instead, you could silently nod your head side to side, with a comical smile on your face. This is a gentle way of reminding a child that they're breaking a rule, and they need to behave differently.
At the end of the day, parents shouldn't stress too much about children picking up the ps and qs. If you've found your way to an article like this, and read this far, then you're probably a conscientious parent who will naturally provide the practice of good manners to your kids.
If you found this article helpful, why not take a look at these martial arts for kids, or [mommy and me yoga] guides too?
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