Teaching your child manners

Childhood Behavior expert, Anastasia Moloney, talks about the importance of teaching a child manners from a young age


If you have ever experienced the embarrassment of having guests over for dinner or visiting a restaurant, only to have your little angel(s) throw food, refuse to sit at the table or even eat, then you are certainly not alone. You may find yourself going into defense mode by trying to explain that your child is normally NEVER like this, all the while mentally forbidding any social gatherings for the next 10 years.

Polite manners are not innate. They are something we all have to learn. If we want our children to use the best of manners in both private and group settings, we need to start teaching them early, we need to be consistent, and, we need to be strong role models ourselves. Learning good manners will support your child’s social development and education, and hold them in good stead for a lifetime.

Before trying to teach a child anything, it is important to make sure that they are developmentally ready. Below is an age-by-age breakdown of what’s age-appropriate and how to address good manners.

0-18 months

At this age it is all about modeling respect for others and politeness in your speech and actions. By modeling the niceties such as ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in your own speech, whether with your child or with others, you are setting a strong verbal model for your baby to learn from. Baby sign and gestures can also be a great way to introduce some basic communicative manners such as ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and waving.  Children are learning and absorbing the world around them, so they are picking up on subtleties of your behavior and from others whom they spend time with.

18 months-3 years

When in a setting that manners are being modeled children at about 18 months old begin to grasp that there are certain social graces. In this age group you can do a range of things such as emphasize greetings, using ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, staying seated while eating, helping to clean up, introducing the concept of waiting and practicing sharing. Incorporate greetings or polite words into your daily routine so that your child becomes familiar with them and starts to understand the positive implications of using them. These are all important skills that we tend to work on with toddlers anyway as they develop, so add extra encouragement for cleaning up, helping, sharing and waiting patiently. These skills will help your child successfully interact as they begin to engage with other children.

3-4 years

This is the age group where you begin to focus on emphasizing interactions with other people. At this age you can expand your child’s polite vocabulary and the situations he/she uses them in. An important concept at this age is teaching and practicing kindness and sensitivity, but instead of saying an abstract phrase like ‘be kind’, help your child to understand the situation and how they respond to it. Expand on things such as saying ‘sorry’, have your child say sorry for a specific act (where relevant) or ask what they can do to make it better. It’s also important for them to understand why they are saying sorry.

When your child makes mistakes – and they will – it’s best to gently correct them on the spot so that they can learn how to apply manners in the moment. For example, if your child interrupts a conversation, gently explain to them why it’s not appropriate to do so or how they can interrupt more politely e.g. ‘Excuse me mommy…’. Or if your child is being disruptive and loud in a public place, gently explain why they need to lower their voice. e.g. ‘Other people are trying to talk, or people are eating a meal nearby’.

It’s important to remember when correcting your child, to do so gently, politely and without aggression. Avoid yelling at them, and instead kneel down to their level, look them in the eye and communicate with them in a soft, relaxed voice.

5-8 years

Children in this age group often like to show off their polite manners, even though manners are still being developed. At this age, it is important to practice not interrupting, since children finally have the ability to wait to take their turn. You can also model and practice social skills that will help your child succeed such as: eye contact, responding when spoken to by adults (“even if the answer is I don’t know”), and helpful social communication skills such as talking on the phone and making them write their own thank you notes.

There are many other social manners that can be focused on, but these will give your child a strong foundation for successful interactions.  If there are other manners you would like your child to focus on, they are best learned through modeling and consistency.  So remember to put your manners to the test!