Teaching Kids to Mind Their Manners

Take a bite out of bad behavior with expert tips on raising a polite child.

Why Manners Count

Back in the late '60s, my father owned a charm school where youngsters in the greater Boston area could transform themselves into gracious adults. In the Fox household, using your fork like a shovel -- or sampling every chocolate in the box -- was a cardinal sin. So when my 19-month-old daughter, Sasha, scribbled on a restaurant wall using a french fry and ketchup as a modified quill and ink, the family legacy was called into question.

I quickly realized that children may be born with a number of innate abilities, but behaving politely is not one of them. And so the onus is on you to teach your little fair lady or gent how to behave in polite society. Read on to learn how to raise a courteous, friendly child who is at home in any social situation.

P's & Q's for Parents

Etiquette guru Emily Post once said, "Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use."

The operative word here is awareness. Around the 18-month mark, a child begins to understand that other people have feelings just like his, so this is the time to start teaching kids that their behavior affects others. Easier said than done, of course. What parent hasn't looked the other way when she hears the greasy thud of a chicken nugget hitting the kitchen wall? Here's what you need to know and how to get started.

Fact #1: Good manners are a good habit. "Behaving politely is a way of life, not just something you pull out when you're at a wedding or fancy restaurant," says Robin Thompson, founder of etiquette-network.com and the Robin Thompson Charm School in Pekin, Illinois. "It's important to start as early as you can so manners become something a child does automatically, whether she is at home or away."

Fact #2: Polite behavior will help your child's social development. Kids who aren't taught social graces from an early age are at a distinct disadvantage, say experts. An ill-mannered child is a turn-off to adults and kids alike; while children aren't likely to be offended by a playmate who neglects to say "excuse me," they don't relish the company of a child who doesn't know how to share or take turns. "You wouldn't send a child off to preschool without a healthy snack," says Sheryl Eberly, mother of three and author of 365 Manners Kids Should Know (Three Rivers Press, 2001). "Sending her into the world without knowing social graces is equally problematic."

Fact #3: Learning manners is a lifelong education. "It won't happen overnight, and you need to take it slowly," says Eberly. Introducing one new social skill a month -- teaching your 2-year-old to say "hello" when another person addresses him, for example, and rewarding him with praise when he does so -- makes the process manageable for everyone.

Equally important is keeping your expectations in check. "There's only so much a small child can do," reminds Eberly. That same 2-year-old is not going to curtsy when ancient Aunt Mabel comes over for Sunday dinner. But she can greet her at the door and sit happily at the table for a limited period of time.

Fact #4: Your behavior counts. "That means that when you ask your partner to pass the salt, you do it with a 'please' and a 'thank you,'" says Eberly. But it goes beyond that. Think about it this way: How would you feel if your child gave a fellow tricycler the finger when he cut her off on the sidewalk? If the thought doesn't thrill you, keep your hands and fingers on the wheel while driving. Inappropriate expressions of anger are rude, too.

Fact #5: Consistency is important. Acquiring good manners takes lots of practice and reinforcement, so make sure that you, your partner, and your caregiver are encouraging (and discouraging) the same behaviors. If your husband lets your kid fling food during meals and you don't, your child won't know what's expected of him.

What to Teach

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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