The teaching of manners has come in and out of vogue over the past several generations. Many parents today consider manners important, but aren’t sure when to introduce the ideas or how to broach the subject. Kids don’t require formal lessons and learn best in the natural course of life.
Books are a great way to introduce a new concept and start a discussion with your child. There are a variety of books written on topics related to manners. One good example for general manners is Perfect Pigs: An Introduction to Manners by Marc Brown (author of the Arthur series) and Stephen Krensky. This book covers a variety of table and living manners topics and situations.
When you decide to begin focusing on manners, don’t try to teach it all at once. Prioritize the issues that are most important to your family and select one or two things to focus on. You don’t want to overload your child with a sudden onslaught of lessons in manners. Take it slow.
Manners are something parents teach by example every day, whether they realize it or not. When you help your spouse clean the kitchen, speak politely to each other, greet and thank the cashier or introduce two people, kids are learning lessons. These situations are much more effective for teaching children manners than lecturing, reading books or role playing.
Table manners become most noticeable when company comes for dinner, at holiday gatherings or if your family is invited to a wedding. Suddenly, things you may have barely noticed seem magnified. There are generally two types of table manners: every day manners at home and expectations for special or formal occasions.
Passing food politely and not talking with your mouth full are examples of every day table manners. Daily table manners are taught by example and learned best when the family eats together every night. This time is great for communication and bonding as well as teaching manners. Give your children gentle reminders about not reaching across others to get food and asking and thanking others for passing food.
If you are attending a function, you may want to give kids some tips on eating in that situation. Explain things like how to place the napkin in their laps, the proper use of utensils and how to tell which place setting is for them. Also, go over things like no double dipping and not eating with your fingers at parties. No one wants to see a three year old dip a carrot eight times at a family function or other party. Not even the most doting Grandma
Conversation and Meeting New People
The best way to teach manners during conversation and when meeting new people is through practice. Talking to your children is the best way for them to learn how to carry on a conversation. Socialize your children beginning at a young age. Introduce them to people at church, the grocery store and throughout the natural course of life. They get better with experience and become less shy when meeting new people.
If going to an event or fussy relative’s house where these things are an issue, spend a little time talking about it ahead of time. Say, “When you meet Great Aunt Gertrude…” and tell them what is expected. Talking and role playing are effective, particularly if your child is shy or unsure of herself in similar situations, or just has little experience in this area.
This issue was actually my first wake up call that a bit of explicit teaching was in order. Nothing makes a parent cringe like a child openly expressing displeasure at a gift. For me, it was my oldest daughter letting out an exasperated sigh and saying, “I already have this one!” It just sounds spoiled and ungrateful, but in her defense, she did have it and hadn’t been told not to express her feelings quite so openly.
How you will handle gift giving and receiving etiquette will vary, depending on the age of the child. For younger kids, stick to the basics, thank each gift giver and not comment negatively on any gift. As the children get a little older, parents can explain a bit more about the thought counting more than the gift and protecting the feelings of others. For some families, role playing works very well in this situation.
This subject is notoriously difficult for toddlers and preschoolers, but can be tough on older kids too. Talk about it ahead of time. Explain that your child’s cousins will be visiting or best buddy is coming for a play date. Talk about sharing toys with guests.
Understanding that, as much as sharing is a virtue; nobody wants to share all their belongings. When you have guests, they share your food and other things, but don’t have free reign to go in your closet and try on your brand new dress or wear your best jewelry.
This is how kids feel about their most prized possessions and many experts agree that making them share everything is unreasonable and a recipe for disaster. Allow your children to put away a few of their favorite or brand new toys until after the company leaves. If they try to put away 25 toys, you may want to set a limit, say three or four, or whatever works for you.
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