“Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late.” Those words of American economist Thomas Sowell from his book “A Conflict of Visions” sometimes offend new parents who, looking at their precious bundle of joy, can’t imagine the stubbornness and temper tantrums that await them. Infants are born demanding their parents’ full attention. They are easily frustrated and often defiant. Fortunately, as they grow, they are capable of learning empathy, cooperation, and sharing – skills that are essential as they mature and interact with others.
You are your child’s first teacher. The years between two and four are the “age of imitation,” according to Phyllis Magrab, Ph.D., director of the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development. “Toddlers watch you closely and mimic what you say,” she explains. For better or worse, parents are the earliest and greatest influence upon children’s behavior, and that motherly and fatherly impact extends far beyond childhood into adulthood.
When the Christian Bible talks about the “sins of the father” afflicted upon his children, it may be referring to the significant impact parents have upon the actions and feelings of their children and the adults they become. Countless adages reflect similar thoughts: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” “A chip off the old block,” and, “Like father, like son.” As poet Maya Angelou said, “I became the kind of parent my mother was to me.”
The greatest lesson that parents can teach their children is respect for themselves and others. Manners – actions that exhibit self-restraint, soft speech, and thoughtful gestures – are visible expressions of respect. Manners affect and define character, the essence of who we are inside.
Good manners are not the province of the wealthy, the educated, or the gifted. Rather, they are available to every person, regardless of social or economic circumstance.
Benefits of Good Manners in Children
Aside from the pride parents feel when their children make a good impression on others, the benefits to the children are immense. Those who have been taught proper manners are better prepared to cope with stress and adversity gracefully. Manners help build social skills that are essential when meeting new people or behaving properly in new situations. Further benefits include the following.
How one feels about oneself is key to confidence and happiness. Feeling positive about your abilities and seeing yourself as deserving of respect is essential to psychological health. Dr. Carl Pickhardt, a family counselor writing in Psychology Today, says that the better people feel about themselves, the better they treat each other, the better they get treated in return, the better off everyone tends to become.
Being kind to others makes the givers happy and increases their sense of satisfaction, according to a study presented in the Journal of Social Psychology. One of the authors of the study, Lara Akin, suggests that there is a “kind of positive feedback loop” between kindness and happiness: One kind deed makes you feel happier, and the happier you feel, the more likely you are to do another kind deed.
Researchers have learned that rude behavior, such as behaving as if others’ feelings don’t matter, implies social rejection and triggers the pain regions of the brain. As a consequence, the offended person has a negative feeling toward the offender, and may react aggressively.
On the other hand, people treated with respect generally respond in kind. The public schools in Green River, Wyoming were required to institute an anti-bullying program, and chose a program that focuses on teaching kids good manners. While the program has been well-received, one mother noted that the schools “can only do so much. Families need to step up to the plate too.”
Children who treat their classmates kindly, demonstrate empathy, and exhibit gratitude tend to be well-liked by their peers. More importantly, treating others with respect builds stronger personal relationships. Exercising manners makes children more likable and feel more likable. As a consequence, they get more positive feedback from others that they are worthy.
Elena Neitlich, an internationally recognized etiquette authority, claims that children who have proper manners and social skills “stand out and have a leg up on their peers,” especially as competition for colleges and good jobs has increased. In 2003, Harvard Business Review published an article about bosses behaving badly, exhibiting bad manners because they lack self-awareness. The article examined how their actions and speech affected others.
Tim Askew, CEO of Corporate Rain International, claims in Inc. that manners and politeness are an “important tool increasingly missing in the modern entrepreneur’s repertoire.” Young people who have a solid foundation of good manners and etiquette when they enter the workplace have advantages over their less polite competition.
6. Physical Health
The use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil has steadily increased since their development in 1987. Harvard Medical School claims that one in ten Americans takes antidepressants, and TheStreet projects the cost to be $13.4 billion by 2018. Even children receive SSRIs for depression, despite side effects of worsening depression, suicidal thoughts, and withdrawal, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Good manners are expressions of civility, the foundation of harmonious relationships, and a good quality of life. Social connections are good for us, both mentally and physically. According to Oxford Journals, strong positive relationships buffer stress and are associated with improved health and well-being. Children, like adults, feel stress, especially when they must adjust to new circumstances like death, divorce, or a new school. Fortunately, most children’s ability to handle stress improves over time if they feel they have the ability and emotional support of family and friends, according to HealthyChildren.org.
Teaching Manners to Your Child
Children develop through stages, and each stage offers increasing physical, mental, and emotional abilities. It’s important parents recognize that the expectations for behavior are different in each stage. For example, it is unrealistic to expect two-year-olds to use perfect table manners or introduce themselves to adults. However, starting early can help your children build a solid foundation in social skills that can benefit them for the rest of their lives.
Parents are their children’s first and most influential teachers. Toddlers at age one do what they see, according to Dr. Lisa Naiven of the Valley Center for Child Development. In the following year, they learn a vast amount of skills ranging from language to interacting with others.
Their learning is a four-step process: watching and listening, processing the information, attempting to copy a behavior, and practicing. Dr. Howard Klein, director of behavioral pediatrics at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, warns parents to be good role models. He writes that “parents of toddlers are under constant observation. During this critical period [between the ages of one and two], it’s important to model your best behavior.”
Children need limits and structure appropriate to their developmental stage. Without boundaries, they neither thrive nor survive. Children naturally learn by exploring – it is the parents’ job to ensure their safety and their maturation.
Parents need to know their children’s needs and capabilities at various ages, and recognize that children don’t think like adults. Two-year-olds are not being defiant when they get restless sitting at a restaurant, but are bored and anxious for a new adventure. Five-year-olds might like a playmate’s toy so much that they “borrow” it without asking. A three-year-old’s temper tantrum is not the same as an eight-year-old’s.
Infants – Less Than 18 Months Old
After nine months of being in the womb with 24/7 nurturing, infants are thrust into the world expecting the same treatment. For the first time, they experience hunger and solitude, feelings the infant instantly knows are bad. By the same token, they know that being held or being nursed feels good. They don’t yet have the capacity to understand that Mother might be busy with another task. Manners have to wait until the infant becomes a toddler.
Toddlers – 18 Months to 3 Years
“When you start early, your child learns that being polite and considerate is just the normal way people act,” says Donna Jones, author of “Taming Your Family Zoo: Six Weeks to Raising a Well-Mannered Child.” By this stage, children have learned that they are part of a family and that others share their world. They learn about “rules” that they must conform to, even though they don’t know why.
Toddlers can’t distinguish between right and wrong, but are directed by what others tell them. For example, a toddler doesn’t have the capability to understand that hitting hurts the victim. In their mind, hitting is wrong because their parents tell them so or because they get punished for it. Ideally, the toddler learns that obedience to adults is expected at this age.
Introducing the words “please” and “thank you” is usually the first step in teaching children courtesy. Initially, children may repeat the words in an effort to imitate their parents without knowing why such expressions are appropriate. Toddlers don’t understand reason and have difficulty controlling their impulses. They learn and repeat the words by observing and copying their parents. You can encourage them to say “excuse me” for burping or bumping into others, or “thank you” when receiving a meal.
Some children may learn to greet people with “hello” and “goodbye,” but they are likely to be unreliable in practice, cheerily saying “hello” on one occasion and hiding shyly behind their mother’s legs at the next. Don’t worry about this, and don’t insist on perfection. As they grow older, it becomes more natural.
Preschoolers – Ages 3 to 7 Years
Around three years of age, children recognize that they are part of a family unit and begin to internalize their parents’ values. They realize that what they do affects others, as well as the rights and feelings of others. Preschoolers understand the difference between a “child” and an “adult” and understand that adults are in charge. They also understand the “when and then” of consequences: When I misbehave, then this happens. By age four, they should be taught not to hit or call one another names.
At this stage, children are ready to learn about taking turns and sharing. It won’t be easy for them in the beginning, and they may occasionally regress if a favorite toy is involved. They can also learn to listen and avoid interrupting when another is talking. Smart parents connect listening and the ability to not interrupt with sharing and taking turns – all behaviors that show respect for other people.
Preschoolers have powerful imaginations and fears and they tend to confuse imagination and reality at times. For example, they may believe in the witches and monsters they hear about from older children. They often need a comforter such as a teddy bear or old quilt when they are tired and away from home. They may have a hard time pacing themselves and can get tired and cranky because they don’t want to stop playing when they are having a good time.
As they grow older, they should be taught about polite introductions, such as when to say “hello” and “goodbye.” Parents sometimes wonder whether to teach their children to use first names only or Mr. or Mrs. with last names. A good compromise may be the combination of the title and the first name such as “Mr. George” or “Ms. Ann.” As they grow older, they should learn to stand and shake hands when introduced. By age six, children should be able to practice basic table manners such as the following:
- Chewing with their mouths closed
- Proper use of utensils and napkins
- Sitting respectfully at the table until dismissed
- Politely asking for something to be passed, and the ability to pass dishes to others
Preadolescents – Ages 7 to 10 years
Seven- to ten-year-olds have a strong sense of fairness. They understand that rules are necessary, but they also want to participate in making the rules. School age children believe that if they break a rule, they should be corrected. Some children internalize this value to the point that they become tattlers.
During this stage, they begin to have their own opinions and want to negotiate with parents about their behavior. A wise parent recognizes that some negotiations may be appropriate, but holds the line on behavior that is dangerous or might demean others. While parents are still powerful authority figures, children at this age recognize that parents are not infallible. They easily identify those instances where a parent says one thing and does another, and may question the fairness of rules applied to them.
Preadolescents are capable of learning the more sophisticated components of manners, what many refer to as etiquette. This is when they begin to understand the “why” of certain behavior and develop a greater sense of empathy.
Manners for this stage include the following:
- Being Gracious. Reinforce the idea of gratitude by encouraging your children to write thank you notes for the gifts they receive. When answering or calling someone on the phone, teach them to introduce themselves first and then ask if they may speak to the person they are calling. When they pick up foul words, explain that others find such language inappropriate and unpleasant. When your children approach a door, teach them to hold the door for others when appropriate.
- Displaying Good Sportsmanship. Children at this age begin to play games and sports. Teach them to play by the rules. Don’t over-value winning, and explain that while it feels good to win, it is more important to have fun playing. Listen carefully to their feelings, but explain that bad behavior is not acceptable in a win or loss. Encourage them to use disappointments as opportunities for improvement, and use examples of professional players in sports they admire. Show them that the best baseball hitters strike out as often as they get hits, and players always shake hands after the game. Discourage putting blame on others, including the referees, coaches, or teammates.
- Respecting the Belongings and Privacy of Others. Establish rules for ownership such as asking permission before touching or using things that belong to family members or friends. Set up your children’s own space and respect their privacy and require that they respect that of others. Teach them to knock before opening a closed door.
While etiquette – the actions of manners – may change from generation to generation, the need to learn and show respect for one’s self and others is eternal. Children develop at different rates and ages, but they share a common need when learning manners.
No matter your children’s learning style and capabilities, you should be patient and learn to repeat lessons when necessary. Remember that you are their model, so you must constantly be the person you want your children to become.
How have you taught your children good manners?