On the list of things I want for my children, awesome social skills are at the top. Being likable leads to personal and professional success, regardless of the situation. How many times have you met someone—be it a potential date or new acquaintance—who seemed amazing on paper, but as soon as they opened their ill-mannered mouth, the illusion was stripped away and you had to fight the urge to run screaming from the room? Manners matter, and because acceptable behavior varies from situation to situation, good manners do not always come naturally.
Hello and Goodbye
Now is the season for obligatory holiday parties with distant and not-so-distant relatives. A good place to start practicing good manners is at the door. Some kids have difficulty stepping into a loud, bustling social situation with lots of people they may or may not remember. Depending on your kiddo's age, a "stranger danger" freak out can happen if Great Uncle Joe forgets to turn up his hearing aid and rushes over armed with killer garlic dip breath, grabbing for a big squishy hug. Generally, if your child is okay in these kinds of situations, it’s a good time to practice greeting someone properly with an appropriate amount of affection. Running up to Grandma shouting, "Hi Grammy!" and wrapping her up in a hug would be a perfectly acceptable greeting for a dear family member, but don't expect your child to feel so comfortable with everybody. Don't force your child to hug everyone in the room. Do encourage them to say hello and use the person's name if they know it. For some kids, a little practice at home helps. The same goes with goodbyes. You don't want to hug every person in the room, so don't force your child to. Have them say goodbye politely, and thank the host for the invitation.
Please and Thank You
It’s common sense to say please and thank you, but it seems like more and more parents are forgetting that this etiquette has to be taught and modeled for kids. The word “please” comes from “if it so please you” as a preface to another person of higher social rank. In some cultures, an adult addressing a child and using “please” or the cultural equivalent, is funny and seems out of place. Not so in contemporary western society. So help your kids cross that fine line between bossy and demanding to polite and accommodating, with the use of a single word. The phrase “thank you” is another way of saying, “I appreciate your actions and am grateful for your presence.” It’s the acknowledgment of another person's positive effect on your environment. We notice when someone doesn't say thank you more often than noticing when someone does. Help your child build the habit of making others feel appreciated.
At the Table
Table manners vary based on age. Quinn at 2 years old and her Great Godmother at age 90 can both get away with missing their mouth with the fork occasionally and refusing to clear the dishes from the table at the end of the meal. Everyone else should be able to practice basic table manners. Beginning at about 2-3 years old, kids should be able to use a fork and spoon fairly effectively and know better than to throw food. As they get older, they should be able to wipe their hands and mouth with a napkin, stay seated for a period of time, and help to clear the table after the meal. Older kids should be able to stay seated until excused, carry on polite conversation, and definitely help clear the table.
Kids (and some adults after a couple of cocktails) may have trouble with polite conversation, especially if those they engage with have a big reaction to their rude language. Getting a rise out of you or other listeners only encourages more inappropriate or crude talk. With younger kids, potty training at home can lead to lots of potty talk with whoever will listen, regardless of the situation. Our neighbor has heard about Quinn's success going #2 in the big girl potty quite a few times . . . luckily she's a mom too, so it doesn't phase her. Encourage your kiddos to listen more than they talk, and remind them to wait their turn to speak. Kids often interrupt out of excitement or the lack of impulse control. Keep in mind that it takes time and practice to master conversational skills and make sure that your kiddos know that you've noticed their good manners and are proud of them.
A Proper Apology
Of course, there will be times when your child will make poor choices in their behavior. Forcing an insincere “I'm sorry” mumbled in someone's general direction does nothing. Try using what I call a “think it through” apology, which forces the child to evaluate both sides of the situation instead of just mumbling the words to get out of trouble:
I'm sorry for . . . be specific. I'm sorry for being mean to you is okay, I'm sorry for pushing you on the shoulder is better.
It's wrong because . . . encourage critical thinking. Pushing you on the shoulder is wrong because you could have fallen down and hurt yourself.
Next time I will . . . require positive language. Next time I will use my words when I get mad.
Do you forgive me? The other person is in no way obligated to forgive. But making the effort is the first step in learning to maintain a relationship.
According to Emily Post, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others.” Learning to adjust behavior accordingly is another important set of social skills parents get the privilege of modeling for their kiddos. Like all social skills, manners (both good and bad) are habits requiring development over a period of time and plenty of opportunities to practice. With the holidays just around the corner, now is an excellent time to put these skills and polite behavior into practice. Keeping in mind your kiddo's age and development, these basic rules for social etiquette are perfectly reasonable to expect of your youngsters.