Last month I and my children went to spend a couple of weeks at Granny’s house. While I believe that my children generally have good manners, there is plenty of room for improvement, as I saw my mother thinking when my 4-year old interrupted our conversation endlessly, and my 1- year old constantly threw his things on the floor. Obviously, it is time to serve up some etiquette lessons. But what is age-appropriate? Is my preschooler mature enough to learn to wait her turn in a conversation? Can I expect my toddler to sit still and not to play with his food?
Learning to communicate is more than just opening your mouth and babbling… manners are a key part too. As parents it’s our responsibility to teach our children what to say, and what not to say; how to behave and to avoid things we shouldn’t do. Is it harder in this international world? Some things that are acceptable in our own culture are frowned upon in another, so how do we manage to teach what they need? We need to keep the goals realistic though- we’ll never get our 2-year-olds to chew with their mouth closed! Here are some basics- things they can start to pick up at different ages:
1-2 year olds
- Saying “please” and “thank you” is usually the first bit of courtesy any parent tries to teach, and you can start as soon as your child is using some words to communicate, usually sometime after the first year. It’s going to be a long time before your baby gets “please” and “thank you” down, but once she starts talking you’ll probably find yourself automatically tacking on the polite words and pausing for her to repeat them, in either language she’s learning. Parents have done this for generations: “What do you say?” “What’s the magic word?” They were right. Use stuffed animals, dolls, or puppets to play dinnertime or teatime and practice saying “May I,” “Please,” “Thank-you,” and “You’re welcome.”
- Encourage kids to say “Excuse me” for burping (and bumping into others), and “I’m sorry” for being naughty. Don’t make a big deal of burps and messes at the table when they’re still little. It will take time to pick up good table manners.
- Get your children to hand you their cup or bowl when they’re finished. This is a precursor to helping clear the table. They can help bring napkins and kid-friendly dinnerware to and from the table, too.
- Instead of letting your child wander around the house munching on snacks, take this opportunity to teach him to sit in his booster seat or high chair while he eats, even if it’s just something small. At this age children have a short attention span, but ten to 15 minutes strapped in a high chair will give them an important lesson: that you sit at the table while you’re eating.
3-4 year olds
- By the time she turns 3, your child should be able to eat with utensils. Now is also the time to start enforcing basics: Use your napkin (not your sleeve!), chew with your mouth closed, don’t talk with your mouth full, sit up straight, and ask to be excused when you’re finished. Focus on one or two behaviors at a time so your child doesn’t get overwhelmed, and try to make it fun. Have a “good manners” tea party- you’ll be surprised how keen she is to enforce the rules on her friends!
- At 3 children need to learn to take turns, not grabbing, and to say sorry if she hurts someone. This was a hard one for my girl, with little things like whose turn it was to push the lift button. When a conflict arises, avoid vague reminders like “Be nice.” Instead, talk to your child about what to do, so she’ll eventually have the words to work things out on her own: “It looks like Sally isn’t done with that doll. Let’s talk to Sally. Sally, when you’re done with the toy, can I have a turn?” If your kid needs to apologize, ask her to say what she’s sorry for, and talk about what she can do to help — whether it’s giving back a toy or sharing a game.
- Picking up toys, books, and dirty clothes can be enforced now, although it can start earlier. Children need to learn to clean up after themselves at an early age, so that they don’t expect someone else to do it for them.
5-6 year olds
- I hoped I’d be able to nip this one in the bud earlier, but by 5, you should be able to make your children stop interrupting you. It really does take time. Telephone calls are another good opportunity to teach your child that there are times when she has to wait for your attention. As long as she’s not in danger or discomfort, a 5-year-old can learn to wait for five to 10 minutes while you’re talking. Make sure your child knows she’ll get you back when you have finished talking, and again, give praise if she’s done well.
- Not so much manners as a skill, learning how to use a knife makes meal times more attractive to parents and friends. Here’s a helpful technique: Tell your kid to put both hands out, palms up. Lay the knife across the fingers of her right hand, pointing out; have her hold the handle with her thumb. She should hold the fork in her left hand the same way. When she turns her hands over, she’s ready to cut. “Tell your child it’s best to cut one piece of meat at a time, instead of all of it at once.
- Learning to introduce himself at a young age is an impressive social skill that might help your child make new friends. Practice shaking hands and saying “Hi, my name is…” at home with his siblings or even dolls or toys so that he gets used to the idea. Encourage him to make good eye contact- even make it into a game by getting him to report back to you on the colour eyes of the person he spoke to!
We need to model the manners that are most important to us- children learn best by good example, but will pick up a bad habit twice as fast as a good one! Talk with your children to make them understand why certain behaviour is expected of them, and praise them when they do well. Children love to be compared with their peers, so if you think a child is doing well, let him and the rest of the group know, so the others can follow his lead.