Teaching Kids to Mind Their Manners

What to Teach

Manners & Responsibility: 3 Manners All Kids Should Know
Manners & Responsibility: 3 Manners All Kids Should Know

4 Basic Manners

Basic Table Manners

  • What to expect: By age 3, your child will be able to eat with a spoon and fork, stay seated at the table for 15 to 20 minutes, and wipe his mouth with a napkin.
  • What to do: During toddlerhood, offer your child his food on a small, no-break plate; encourage him to use his utensils; discourage him from throwing food by telling him, "We don't throw food on the floor. If you don't want any more, please say 'no thank you.'"

Please and Thank You

  • What to expect: An 18-month-old may be able to say the words but not necessarily grasp their true meaning. By 2 1/2, kids can link the word to the concept.
  • What to do: If your child hasn't gotten into the habit, gently prompt him by saying, "What do we say after we get a gift?" or "What do we say when someone gives us a treat?"


  • What to expect: At around 2, a child begins to understand the concept of sharing and turn-taking -- though he won't necessarily relish doing either!
  • What to do: Encourage your toddler to share with his friends on play dates by giving him two similar toys and helping him offer one to his friend.


  • What to expect: Though a toddler of about 18 months has a basic understanding of empathy, he can't really understand why he's expected to apologize. By 2 1/2 to 3, he'll understand the concept but may be too caught up in his own affairs to do it on his own.
  • What to do: When your child snatches a toy from a playmate, discourage the behavior and play on his empathy: "We don't hit; hitting hurts." Then, prompt him to apologize: "When we hurt someone, we say, 'I'm sorry.'"

Let's Talk

Here are Sheryl Eberly's tips on teaching the basic rules of polite conversation.

  • Look at the party to whom you are speaking or who is speaking to you.
    Tip: Tell your child to look for what color the person's eyes are.
  • Answer if you are asked a question.
    Tip: Gently prompt your child to speak. Let him know that it's okay to say "I don't know."
  • Don't speak until the person you are speaking with is finished.
    Tip: Encourage patience by telling your child to count to five before speaking.
  • Don't interrupt unless it's an emergency; if a friend is sick, for instance, or someone needs to use the bathroom. If you must interrupt, say "Excuse me."
    Tip: Develop a signal your child can use to indicate that he needs you -- raising his index finger, for example.

Play-Date Protocol

Play dates are a great opportunity to practice manners. Here's how to ensure your child is on his best behavior.

  • Set your child up for success. Young children behave well when they're rested and comfortable. Plan play dates around naps and meals.
  • Gently remind him of your expectations. Before you go, tell your child that he has to share and say "please" and "thank you."
  • Prompt him when he forgets to be mannerly. If your child takes a snack from your host without comment, for example, say, "Please thank Mrs. Jones for the cookie."
  • Step in when things get hairy. During the play date, someone will inevitably hit, bite, or toy-snatch. If your child is the instigator, say, "That made your friend feel bad. Let's make him feel better by saying that we're sorry."
  • Help him thank his host. When you leave, remind your child he had fun and prompt him to say "thank you."

Mr., Mrs., or Ms.?

Should your child call your best friend Jane or Mrs. Jones? Ultimately, say manners experts, it's up to your friend. However, some grown-ups prefer more formality than others, so err on the side of politeness. Introduce adults as "Mr." or "Mrs." and let the adult in question say, "Please call me Al," if that's his preference.

Gross Behavior

Q. Help! My 2-l1/2-year-old is a pathological nose-picker. To top it off, she's learning to use the potty, so she's constantly talking about pee and poop. All told, she presents a pretty gross package. Is there anything I can do?

The nose-picking is definitely the easiest thing to deal with. "When you see her going for her nose, just offer her a tissue," says Thompson. "Don't make a big deal out of it." Toddlers are trying to figure out exactly what they can get away with and what they can't. Showing displeasure may make your daughter want to engage in the behavior even more.

As for the potty talk, you're going to have to deal with it for a while. Saying the words is a way for your child to connect the urge with the act -- and that's a good thing. When she uses the words for shock value, treat the situation the same way you would the nose-picking: In a matter-of-fact manner, ask her if she needs to use the potty. If the answer is no, carry on with what you were doing. Chances are, she won't be as tempted to use these words if she can't get a rise out of you.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2005.

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