Manners are important, but how do you teach them to kids so they stick? Here are a few simple expert tips that'll help make manners a part of everyday life.

By Dina Gachman
January 27, 2021
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Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

Maybe it's because I was raised by a Southern belle in Texas, but I do not want my son to turn into a surly teenager who says "huh?" when an adult asks him a question. He doesn't need to possess the manners of Emily Post or learn how to conduct himself in front of the Queen of England, but saying "please," "thank you," and "excuse me" is important.

He's only 3, so we're still in the early stages of learning manners, and some days are better than others. But, according to experts, there are simple, everyday things you can do to start instilling manners in your child without having to go to great lengths, like enrolling them in strict toddler etiquette classes. I pity any teacher who would attempt that lesson plan.

If you're struggling to teach simple manners to your little one (or if you've just been too exhausted to even begin), here are a few simple techniques that'll help make manners a part of everyday life, instead of a far-off goal that you'll get to eventually.

Start Simple, Start Early

Teaching a 2-week-old infant to say "please" is a fool's errand, obviously, but it's never too early to at least practice manners in front of babies and toddlers. "Start while they're young," says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and author of Let Crazy Be Crazy.

As children start to speak, polite words should be part of their learned vocabulary. Simply injecting "thank you" or "please" naturally throughout the day when you speak to them can go a long way. "Some parents assume that manners are too formal," says Sheryl Eberly, speaker and author of 365 Manners Every Kid Should Know. "That's a mistake—it's a small discipline for a child to recognize manners and show respect."

Be Consistent

Like most things you're trying to teach a child (potty training, not drawing on walls) staying consistent is important. Don't beat yourself up if you don't remember to tell them how good it makes you feel every time they manage to say, "excuse me," but if you make manners an erratic lesson, they're less likely to stick.

Swann suggests implementing "seven minutes of manners" a day or a week with older kids and tweaking that to "two or three minutes for toddlers." I could maybe get 30 to 60 seconds with my toddler, but whatever works.

Setting aside that time to sit down and focus on one thing, like, "Here's why it's nice to say, 'bless you' after a sneeze," will help the lessons become part of their routine and help them absorb what you're teaching. "Don't just wait for the important moments," says Swann. "When they're little, their attention span and vocabulary is limited, so be consistent."

Model Good Manners

If you're trying to teach your child to behave in kind ways, it won't help the situation if you're not modeling that behavior daily. Kids watch and take in much more than we know (which is probably the reason my son said his first curse word at 3 years old—I blame my husband!).

Experts say to remain mindful of how you engage with everyone whether it's your partner, cashiers at the grocery store, or people you pass in the street. You don't have to walk around being completely selfless and sacrificing your own sanity and time in order to model perfect behavior 365 days a year, but a few instances can go a long way. You can do that by giving someone a parking spot when your child is with you or letting someone go before you in line.

Claire Lerner, child development and parenting expert and founder of Lerner Child Development, says modeling "should be an empowering message because it's completely within your control." It's not something you're forcing upon a child—you're just acting in a way that they can, and should, emulate.

Get into Character

Role playing is another great method when it comes to teaching manners. Most children, especially if they're more sensitive or it takes them longer to warm up in situations, can benefit from a little pretend play.

Say your child gets a present from Grandma, and they throw it down because in that moment they suddenly hate Legos. "You don't want to teach a child to hold in their natural reaction and not get their words out," says Robyn Koslowitz, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and founder of the Targeted Parenting Institute. Instead of forcing a child to say they love the gift, she suggests telling them they can say something like, "Thank you, I love you," to their grandma. It shows kindheartedness without making the child feel like they have to lie.

Role playing before a child goes to a party or a new environment can also help them anticipate things they might encounter and give them tools and options in the moment. "If they don't have tools," says Lerner, "that's when things go south."

Lead with Kindness

"I'm not so into teaching etiquette as much as teaching the concept of kindness," says Dr. Koslowitz. Her approach comes in large part from the idea of talking about comfortable and uncomfortable thoughts and discussing with children how their actions make others feel. "The more polite you are, the more comfortable you're making people," she says.

If you take the time to help your children approach manners from this perspective, they'll be more likely to understand, and respond. It's less a command, and more of a value system. "I see parents get into trouble when teaching manners becomes a power struggle," says Lerner. "It leads you down a frustrating rabbit hole."

Let children know how good it makes people feel when they're kind to others and use manners. Help them understand the underlying reasons that manners are important. Sure, kids will still have their meltdowns and tantrums, but leading with kindness helps them develop a better understanding of why manners are important.

Give Choices

Say your child constantly interrupts you when you're on the phone or talking to another adult. You could just say, "It's rude to interrupt" or "I'm talking to my friend right now," but when did that ever stop a small child from begging for your attention? It helps if you instead say something like, "I see that you really want to say something, but I'm talking to a friend, so you can wait until I'm finished, or you could look at this book for a little bit until I'm finished."

The latter makes kids feel like they're taking responsibility and have some control. "If you just give them a correction, you're engaging in oppositionality," says Lerner. "It calms the nervous system to have your emotions acknowledged. If you get exasperated, you'll be promulgating a battle." Again, it's only human to occasionally lose your cool, but acknowledging your child's emotions and giving them choices will help the both of you.

Another instance when choices come in handy is if your child takes a while to warm up to people. Instead of commanding them to hug their aunt or a friend, you can say, "If you don't want to give them a hug, would you like to draw them a picture, or pick a book they can read to you?" The choice gives them autonomy, and you're also not forcing them to do something that might make them uncomfortable, all in the name of manners.

Don't Force an Apology

"Say you're sorry!" Most of us are guilty of saying this to our kids at some point but forcing an "I'm sorry" isn't an effective way of teaching your child to be truly kind and polite.

"Trying to force things defeats the whole purpose," says Lerner. "You want them to take responsibility for having done something hurtful." She says that this is particularly important for highly sensitive children. "They get so flooded with emotion and shame when someone is correcting them, so forcing them to say 'sorry' is counterproductive."

Instead, try to mirror the other person's feelings ("Sally felt sad when you knocked down her tower, even though you didn't mean to.") Instill empathy in your child and help them understand how someone else is impacted by their actions. That way, the "sorry" that (hopefully) eventually comes is genuine and true.

Create a Safe Space

A big mistake parents make when teaching manners is scolding or correcting a child in public or in front of others. "Avoid shaming," says Lerner. "It's just a toxic emotion and it shuts people down, especially children. It's not motivating; it's paralyzing."

Dr. Koslowitz says that you can apologize for your child to another adult, and then later, at home or in a safe space, explain to your kid why their behavior might have been unkind or made them feel sad. Also, let your child know that you as the parent never judge them, and then they'll be more likely to open up to what you're explaining to them.

The Bottom Line

As tough as it might be to remain calm when your child is being unkind or rude (or, let's face it, just a hellion), remembering to use these techniques will help you teach manners in a way that's likely to sink in and become part of your child's value system as they grow up. "Never lose sight of the fact that this is for the long haul," says Eberly. "It's worth it."

Dina Gachman is the author of Brokenomics, a book of humor essays about money, and she writes about pop culture, parenting, and entertainment. You can find her on Twitter @TheElf26.

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