Good manners help kids learn respect for themselves, for each other and adults. However, few kids today could pass their grandparents’ test for appropriate manners, says Aaron Cooper, a clinical psychologist and educator. Why? “Many modern parents declare it old-fashioned and turn up their noses at the importance of teaching manners — an antiquated ritual, super uncool,” says Cooper, co-author of I Just Want My Kids to be Happy: Why You Shouldn’t Say It, Why You Shouldn’t Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead (Late August Press, 2008). “What well-intentioned moms and dads forget is that acquiring manners is one of the earliest ways to help kids develop self-control. And self-control, experts agree, is a key element in paving the foundation for a happy life.”
Another roadblock to teaching good manners is lack of time. With today’s busy family lifestyles, it’s common to let courtesy slide, says Fran Swift, a parent educator. “I hear from parents about their children’s rudeness and disrespectful behavior,” Swift says. “This can be connected to lack of common courtesies, which respect is a huge part of.” It makes the kids unhappy when parents insist on manners — and today, parents just want their kids to be happy, Cooper says. “After one or both parents have worked all day, it’s harmony they’re looking for, not the inevitable struggle when they insist on manners,” he says. Parents would rather be “friends” with their kids than authoritative limit-setters, and friends don’t insist on manners, he says.
Role modeling respect
Many parents often feel hurried, so they may have unknowingly fallen into a pattern of speaking rudely to their children, Swift says. “I do believe that good manners are caught, not taught,” she says. If it’s not an emergency (teach your children what constitutes an “emergency”), children need to learn to wait their turn in conversation.
Depending on the child’s age, acknowledge them by taking their hand or putting your arm around them. Then invite them to speak when it’s appropriate, Swift says. The tone of your voice becomes part of good manners as well, Swift says. If a parent is always in a rush, their voice may sound overly demanding. Set standards in the family — no name-calling and no insulting one another. When the children are in school, those expectations have been set. Hopefully, good manners will carry into their classrooms and other public settings, Swift says.
Create a sense of sharing in the home. Invite friends over to have popcorn and to watch a movie, and tell your children “There are plenty of snacks to go around for everyone.” Enjoy family dinners at least once a week and model good table manners together, Swift says. “Parents say they want their kids to be happy, but without the capacity for self-control, few kids can ever enjoy real happiness,” Cooper says. “Teaching manners is one way parents can put their money where their mouth is.”
As parents go throughout the days with their children, it’s the little courtesies that can be practiced to make a big difference, Swift says. From holding doors open to helping one another with chores, parents can model and encourage good manners in their children every day — in and out of the home.
Set the standard high for proper language used in your home, Swift says. Although swearing has become more common in public and in media, that doesn’t mean it should be an acceptable manner of speaking. Other everyday courtesies include displaying good sportsmanship when competing in games together. Help children to understand that it’s okay to lose and to feel upset, but that they can try again, Swift says.
In addition, help them learn respect by taking care of one another’s property. If your child borrows something from a friend, make sure they care for it and return it in a timely manner, she says. “Set expectations, start early and remember good modeling matters,” Swift says. “Manners make up the way we treat each other. You do need to look at what’s happening as a society, and then decide what you believe and how you want your children to behave.”
Kim Seidel is an award-winning writer and a mother of two daughters. She strives to role model good manners for her family.