I thought my children were relatively well-mannered until my grandmother, who is always a model of decorum, came for dinner a few months ago and I saw their behavior through her eyes: my 6-year-old's elbows on the table, my 3-year-old's constant interruptions, and my 1-year-old's habit of hurling peas onto the floor. Obviously, it was time to serve up some etiquette lessons. But I wasn't sure what was age-appropriate. Was my preschooler mature enough to learn to wait her turn in a conversation? Could I expect my toddler to sit still and not to play with his food? I talked to manners experts and psychologists from across the country to find out. This guide has everything you need to know to raise polite, well-mannered children, no matter their age or stage.
At around 18 months, kids begin to grasp that there are certain accepted social graces. Set the stage now by being polite yourself and helping your child think about other people's feelings -- after all, good manners are first and foremost about being thoughtful and considerate of others.
WHAT TO WORK ON
Hello and goodbye. Even before she can speak, encourage your little one to wave hello and goodbye. It's the first step in teaching her how to recognize and greet people, says Sheryl Eberly, author of 365 Manners Kids Should Know. "One way to practice is to say good morning to each other every day," she adds. And don't forget to greet your spouse cheerfully when he gets home.
Staying seated while eating. Instead of letting your child wander around the house munching on Goldfish, take this opportunity to teach him to sit in his booster seat or high chair while he eats, even if it's just a snack. "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: You sit at the table while you're eating," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. If he starts throwing his food, let him know there will be consequences. Say, "I guess you're not hungry anymore. If you toss your food again, snacktime will be over." You can also take this time to begin working with him on using a fork and spoon, though most children won't master that until they're close to 3.
Using the magic words. Your toddler won't fully grasp the meaning of "please" and "thank you" until she's older, but get her in the habit of using them now. A fun way is to use the baby signs: For "please," outstretch your hand and rub it in a circular motion over your heart. To say "thank you," put your open hand on your lip then bring it forward toward the person you're thanking.
This is the prime time for teaching hard-core manners, since children this age love to master new "big kid" skills. But it's still a gradual process that will take many reminders from you.
WHAT TO WORK ON
Following simple table etiquette. 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 and use a British accent. And it's okay to let things go sometimes, says June Hines Moore, author of You Can Raise a Well-Mannered Child. "Don't be the manners police, fussing at your children constantly."
Expanding his polite vocabulary. Work with your child to say "may I please." Give him a do-over when he forgets, so he has a chance to correct himself. Also introduce the all-important "excuse me." He should say it after burping or passing gas, as well as when he needs your attention. When he goes to a playdate make sure he knows to thank his host for having him, and to thank friends for coming when they visit your house.
Being kind. This means taking turns, not grabbing, and saying she's sorry if she hurts someone. 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 Ruby isn't done with that doll. Let's talk to Ruby. Ruby, when you're done with the toy, can Ava 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 getting her friend a play bandage.
WHAT TO WORK ON
Looking adults in the eye and responding when spoken to. These are essential social skills, Eberly says, but even the most confident kids have a tendency to duck their head and mumble when speaking to a grown-up. Turn it into a game by asking your child to check the color of a person's eyes and report back to you. Then practice meeting and greeting. Demonstrate how to shake hands firmly and repeat back the person's name: "Hello, Mrs. Fisher."
Not interrupting. The good news is that 5- and 6-year-olds finally have the ability to wait for their turn to talk, says Jodi Stoner, Ph.D., a clinical psychotherapist and coauthor of Good Manners Are Contagious. You just have to teach them. Come up with a secret word or sign, or try a wink, that you'll use to remind your kid to wait when you're talking to someone. Role-play outside the heat of the moment to help him recognize when he's interrupting. When he does wait patiently, make sure he gets your attention soon. "Don't make him wait so long that it's disrespectful to him," Dr. Stoner says. "A child this age can't sit tight for more than five minutes -- especially if he's waiting for you to be done with his sibling. Make sure you show him you notice by glancing over at him with a smile that says you acknowledge he's doing the right thing."
More sophisticated table manners. Start enforcing more nuanced etiquette, such as no elbows on the table and saying "please pass" instead of reaching. Children this age care about how they compare with their friends and classmates, so point out good-manners moments: "Check out the way Julian put his napkin in his lap without being reminded."
Big kids have the capacity to understand how others feel and are concerned about what people think of them. This is when it all should come together.
WHAT TO WORK ON
Phone skills. Because we all use cell phones your kid may not get much practice picking up calls, but it still matters. Teach your child how to do this as soon as he can remember a message. When he answers he can simply say "Hello." If you can't get to the phone teach him to say "May I tell her who's calling, please?" or "I'm sorry -- my mom's not available right now. May I take a message?"
Cutting food with a knife. 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.
Make a list of table manners: putting a napkin on your lap, using your utensils, eating with your mouth closed. When one of your kids performs a polite dinner act she gets a ticket. Whoever gets the most wins an extra story before bedtime.
The "Off-Duty" Dinner
Promise your kid that if he uses good manners for a set number of days, you'll have a silly dinner. He can put his elbows on the table, talk with his mouth full, and eat with his hands. He'll think it's a blast, but it will also show him why manners are so important.
Once in a while, set the table with real china and goblets with stems (get plastic ones for the littlest ones). Turn the lights down and put candles on the table. The kids will love it so much, they won't mind being on their best behavior.
Wrap up a bunch of mundane stuff from around the house, then have your child open each and practice saying something good about it. ("Thank you so much for this box of tissues. It's my favorite color, and it sure will come in handy!")
Ages 0-1 You'll write it for your child. Make sure you include at least one sentence about how she's using the present or why she likes it.
Ages 2-3 You still write it but use your kid's voice if it doesn't seem forced. Let him dictate, and give details about why he likes it. Then have him draw a picture and "sign" at the bottom, even if it's only a scribble.
Ages 4-5 Try a fill-in-the-blank note: "Thank you for the ________. It's _______." Then you write one more sentence about what she likes about the gift, making sure she signs her name at the end.
Ages 6-8 Your kid should write the entire note, and it should have at least two sentences: "Thank you for the ________. I like it because ________."
Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Parents magazine.