Teaching children to have good manners isn’t just about sitting up straight at the dinner table or writing thank-you notes (although those are definitely important). Good manners are also about respect, explains Judy Davidds-Wright, mother of two girls as well as a Certified International Protocol and Social Etiquette Consultant.
“In order to receive respect, then you must give respect and vice versa,” Davidds-Wright says. “If our children have good manners, it says a lot about them to other people… and they will be treated accordingly.”
Courtesy and respect are concepts that are well worth it to master. “Life can be very tough and no matter what type of life we lead, we will always have to deal with people,” says Davidds-Wright. “Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ will take you a long way in life and get you what you want, most of the time.” And don’t forget that one of the best ways to instill good manners in your children is to model these behaviors yourself. “Manners need to start at home,” says Davidds-Wright. Here are ten essentials.
1. The Magic Word
It seems right that “please” is known as “the magic word.” Probably the most prioritized of all good manners, it’s a word that has an appropriately magical effect when attached to requests and even simple affirmations like “Yes” (as in “Yes, please!”). Everyone is charmed by a child who uses the magic word. But the context of saying please, and the way it is is said, is just as important as the word itself. Parents should emphasize appropriate way to ask for something, and not just stress the “please” on its own. For example, “May I have some milk, please?” is courteous and charming. Some alternatives that fall short? “Gimme some milk, please” or “Can I get some milk…” (insert pause, and grudging “please” here). It’s fine for parents to start off with prompting (“What’s the magic word?”) but after a while, it should become second nature for children. Modeling this behavior yourself, in front of the kids, is one of the best ways to make it so.
2. Giving Thanks
Saying “thank you” seems like pretty basic etiquette. But the context can vary, as well as the method. Most children know that upon receiving that coveted American Girl doll from Aunt Gladys, they need to issue a heartfelt thank you. But what about when they open a present that doesn’t exactly thrill and delight them? Children should know that it’s just as important to be gracious and thank the gift giver, who went to the same amount of trouble as Aunt Gladys—just not with the same results. Other ways to express their appreciation? “Thank-you notes when they receive a gift,” says Judy Davidds-Wright. And it’s not just presents that are deserving of thanks. “I want my son to recognize the hard work his teachers do,” says Regina, a former teacher herself. “and saying “thank you” at the end of the day is a way to show that; of course, I also make a point of thanking them in front of him, so that he sees me model this behavior.”
3. Hello, Goodbye
Adults do it all the time—greet people when they see them, and say adios when it’s time to go. But children often forget these basic salutations. “They’ll leave a playdate without even saying goodbye to their friends, if they’re preoccupied or distracted, or just unsure of how to end things,” says Jackie, a mother of two boys and a girl. Acknowledging the beginning and end of a conversation or encounter isn’t just common courtesy, it’s a skill that children will use for the rest of their lives—at job interviews, on dates, or sitting down with a college admissions officer.
4. Meet and Greet
Many children, when faced with meeting someone for the first time, deal with their anxiety by being rude or simply ignoring the other person—looking away, pretending not to hear them, or simply feigning all-around ignorance. Instilling caution when encountering strangers is a good thing for parents to do, but when you’re introducing your child to a new person, they can and should try to put their nervousness aside and be polite. This entails “handshake, smile and eye contact,” says Davidds-Wright. And teaching the power of a good strong handshake shouldn’t be underestimated. My father taught me a firm grip as a young girl, and I continue to receive compliments on it to this day.
5. Table Talk
When it comes to table manners, there’s a lot to remember. Davidds-Wright’s essentials include keeping elbows off the table and napkins on laps, chewing with a closed mouth, sitting up straight, and refraining from interrupting the grownups at the table. Other tips you might not have thought of? “Once silverware leaves the table, it never touches the table again,” says Davidds-Wright. Any used silverware gets placed on one’s plate. Another common infraction is the dreaded “I don’t like it, so I’m going to spit it out” maneuver, which can ruin the appetite of any non-parental dining companion not used to such shenanigans. Discuss this possibility with your little ones ahead of time. “If they chew on something they do not like… they place it in their napkin from their mouth very discreetly then ask for another napkin,” advises Davidds-Wright. To avoid turning every meal into an etiquette drill instruction, keep in mind that practice makes perfect and that each family dining experience is also an opportunity for your children to move closer to mastering exceptional table etiquette.
6. Excuse You!
Two little words that come in handy in a variety of situations? A simple “Excuse me.” Getting up from the table is a situation that calls for this magic phrase. And Judy Davidds-Wright teaches her children that “every time they cross in front of someone, say ‘Excuse me.” This can be an important lesson. Jackie’s three kids “will sway into the path of a pedestrian or cut in front of someone without even thinking about it.” Staying aware of their surroundings and the people around them, and remembering to excuse themselves is an unbeatable combination. “Excuse me,” or a variation thereof, also works well as a substitute for the much less pleasing “What?”—a four-letter word that Davidds-Wright doesn’t allow in her household. “I’ve been teaching my girls from the moment they were able to talk to say ‘beg your pardon’ when they need someone to repeat what they said,” she explains. “We just got back from London and Paris last weekend and the children they met out there all said ‘pardon me’ or ‘beg your pardon’ which re-emphasized for my girls how important good manners are and that what I am teaching them is not something I just made up.”
7. Body Language
“Excuse me” also comes in handy for what can be an unavoidable social snafu: bodily functions. Children go from being applauded for doing a “number two” in the potty to being told to practice discretion when it comes to simply being human. So how do you handle these and related topics?
“I let my girls know that if they absolutely have to pass gas, then they should try to step into another room,” says Davidds-Wright. “If this is not possible, and it slips out accidentally, then all they need to say is ‘excuse me.’ It’s embarrassing enough for them, no need to humiliate them.” As for burping, it’s the “same thing,” she says. “However, with burping I always tell them to cover their mouth with one hand and then say excuse me.” When it comes to a cough or a sneeze, children should practice the “Dracula Cough.” (This fun name for coughing or sneezing into the crook of your arm (when bent at the elbow) should be enough incentive to get kids to remember it). Only after they’ve finished should they say “Excuse me.” Not only is this basic etiquette, it prevents the spread of illness. “We don’t want to spread germs, especially if we’re sick,” says Davidds-Wright.
8. Seeing Eye to Eye
Kids often have a hard time with eye contact; it can feel intense and uncomfortable. But they should be encouraged to overcome their hesitation, as it is a skill that, once mastered, will serve them well for the rest of their lives in a variety of situations ranging from casual conversations to pressure-heavy scenarios like job interviews. Not to mention making eye contact when you’re talking to someone is just plain polite. The Emily Post Institute’s website emphasizes eye contact in “Being a Good Conversationalist”: “Looking into the other person’s eyes shows your interest in the conversation, but try not to stare.” Striking the right balance between maintaining eye contact and merely giving someone the hairy eyeball can be tough, but children should still be encouraged to try; practice will make perfect. Eye contact fosters a real connection with people, while a lack of eye contact can signal disinterest, discomfort, or a lack of confidence. In a 2007 article about children at the Connecticut School of Etiquette, the New York Times wrote about a trick employed by proprietor and instructor Michèle O’Reilly (O’Reilly is certified by both the Emily Post institute and the Protocol School of Washington). When teaching children at her school, “[O’Reilly] told them the importance of eye contact, then showed them a trick. If they were too shy to look the other person in the eye, they could stare at the spot above the person’s nose and between the eyebrows—‘the safety zone,’ said Ms. O’Reilly, who gave them stickers to place in their safety zones. Then they practiced introductions again, this time staring at the stickers between their eyebrows.”
9. Game Face
Good sportsmanship can be a tall order. It’s often tremendously difficult for young children to put on a happy face when they get knocked back to start while playing Candyland, or come in last at the bowling alley. Still, they need to be taught to work through their disappointment and overcome their inclination to indulge in poor sportsmanship. Similarly, it’s just as important to be a good winner. The child who taunts his or her siblings or classmates when she wins will be just as unpopular when it comes to playing games as the sorest of losers. Encouraging empathy comes in handy when teaching good sportsmanship; try asking your child, “How would you feel if you lost and your playmate yelled, ‘Ha ha!’ at you?” or explaining, “When you throw a fit because you didn’t win at Monopoly, it spoils the game for everyone.” Having this discussion ahead of time will help (as in before the trip to the bowling alley on family bowling night), as it can be nearly impossible to console a child in the throes of a gutter ball-induced meltdown.
10. Doing Unto Others…
“Empathy is #1 for me,” says Judy Davidds-Wright. While you might not initially make the connection between empathy and good manners, the two concepts go hand-in-hand. “Good manners are a great way for our young children to show care and respect for others,” she explains. “It is difficult for children under the age of 8 to truly grasp the concept of empathy, so by teaching them good manners you begin to instill the value of empathy.” Simply asking a child how they would like to be treated can help them begin to understand the concept of “do unto others.” Holly, a mother of two young children, recalls when her daughter had a small bouquet of flowers and said to a family friend, “These flowers are for me and for my family only.” Holly “explained that was rude, and [her daughter] was escorted outside to get special flowers for the friend that she thought she would like.” Holly used an example to help her daughter understand. “I asked her ‘how would you feel if I said, ‘Look, I have a cupcake,’ but then there wasn’t one for you. My daughter realized that would make her sad. We compared that scenario to the flower scenario.